Monday, December 22, 2008

My trip to Australia was a blast

Poster Art for "Australia."

In Australia, An English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) inherits an Australian ranch the size of Maryland. When English cattle barons plot to take her land, she reluctantly joins forces with a rough-hewn cattle driver to drive 2,000-head of cattle across hundreds of miles of the country's most unforgiving land, only to still face the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese forces that had attacked Pearl Harbor only months earlier.

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in "Australia."

Whether or not Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is a great film, it is one hell of a movie. I say that as a compliment. I also note that it’s old-fashioned—and that, too, is a compliment. The word “epic” gets tossed around these days with alarming frequency—to describe every effects-driven, big-budget behemoth that lumbers into town. It also gets used as a barometer of quality, which is even more absurd. Australia truly is epic—and in a good way. In fact, it’s an epic in several good ways. It has the kind of sweep and wide-ranging geographical sense of an epic. The story and the characters are all larger than life. The scope of its ambition knows no bounds. The plot is deliberately simple and very much a movie plot—or perhaps plots. The whole “hate at first sight” that turns to respect and then to love, played by his quintessential movie star leads (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman), is classic Hollywood. So too is the thawing of Kidman’s “ice princess” and her growing attachment to the half-caste little boy (newcomer Brandon Walters), who serves as the underpinning of the film’s concerns about racism in Australian history. The story starts in 1939 when Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) comes to Australia to check up on her husband. She thinks he has extended his stay in Australia in order to be unfaithful to her, but when she arrives she finds he has been murdered and their cattle ranch named “Faraway Downs” is in bad shape. The only way to save it is to get a herd of cattle to Darwin Harbor and sell them to the British Army. She enlists the help of her husband’s drover (Jackman) who is reluctant to start such a trek. Plus she has wealthy rancher King Carney (Bryan Brown) doing everything he can to stop her. He wants to get a monopoly with the Army so he can’t have her showing up with competitive cattle. He enlists his worker, Neil Fletcher (David Wynham), to do whatever is necessary to stop the drive. Sarah is also caught up in the plight of a young boy named Nullah . He is part Aborigine and part Caucasian and thus belongs in neither world. The authorities want to place him in a mission home, but Nullah wants to stay at Faraway Downs. Sarah is drawn to the boy and wants to protect him. The cattle drive dominates the first half of the film and the bombing of Darwin Harbor dominates the second. Plus the love story of Sarah and the Drover ties it all together. There is something for everyone in this film and the two hour and fifty five minute running time seems to fly by in an instant.

Luhrmann has combined the elements of the Western and the war movie by dividing the movie into two parts (it really needed an intermission). There are echoes of Gone with the Wind, Howard Hawks’ Red River and even The Wizard of Oz—this last makes splendid sense in context, especially given the film’s open-faced acceptance of Aboriginal magic and mysticism, as well as the fact that for Kidman’s initially uptight Englishwoman, Australia truly is “somewhere over the rainbow.” All of it is used as a background to romance and the framework for at least four magnificent set pieces: a cattle stampede, the delivery of the cattle, a fancy ball and the bombing of Darwin. Kidman is amazing in her role of Sarah, and there is no one else acting today who could have done as perfectly as she does. It seems Luhrmann, who also directed her in “Moulin Rouge,” created the role with her in mind for it fits her that totally. She brings a freshness to the part as well as a strength that Sarah has to have. And her chemistry with Jackman is pitch perfect. Jackman is rugged and handsome as the Drover and matches Kidman in the chemistry department. His acting is not as strong as hers but strong enough. Recently named “the sexiest man alive” by People Magazine, this role proves the title wasn’t some fluke. Waters is the surprise of the film. His portrayal of Nullah is staggering. He narrates the film and is the character who ties it all together. He is the right person for this role and makes an indelible impression. When awards are given out for “best supporting actor” his name should be front and center. Australia is a sprawling, engrossing look at the continent about which we know very little. This movie should make the Australian Tourist Board very happy as it would seem millions will now want to visit there. In the meantime it is hoped million of filmgoers will find out just how entertaining this film is. It deserves to be seen and savored maybe more than once. Who cares if it is almost three hours long – they are three of the most entertaining hours you will exposed to this year. A strong 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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