Australia may remind you of a lot of other movies – westerns, safari movies, even cartoons, since so much of the characterisation is overblown, even clownish.
There are scowling villains, smirking ones, a damsel in distress - Luhrman has thrown just about everything into this long, sprawling saga. It’s set in Australia but it could be happening anywhere, as the setting, Faraway Downs, implies. Its theme is Good versus Evil, the oldest story in the book. It also takes in romance, the Stolen Generations, and the World War II bombing of Darwin by the Japanese.
It’s had its detractors. What overpriced epic hasn’t? But if it’s faint praise to say it isn’t as bad as expected, at least it’s praise of a sort. It’s watchable. It’s clichéd, and predictable, and derivative, but it’s also sweeping, good to look at and, in parts, touching.
Brandon Walters as Nullah, the mixed race boy that Nicole Kidman’s character Sarah, Lady Ashley, adopts, waltzes off with the movie. David Gulpilil, as his full blood Aboriginal grandfather, also steals most of his scenes, no mean feat given his part is virtually non-speaking. Hugh Jackman as The Drover seems to be channeling the advice Brendan Frazer was given in The Mummy: Show up and look like a stud. Jackman manages that with ease.
Nicole Kidman makes a bit of a goose of herself as Sarah Ashley, but there’s no discredit in that – these kinds of roles are booby-trapped from the start. Would Cate Blanchett have done any better? Possibly. But who wants to excel as a cartoon character? The film would crash under the weight of a serious attempt at acting. Maybe all Luhrman told Kidman was to Show up and Talk like a Pommie, which she mostly manages. Like a good sport, she sings appallingly off key, and cries in all the right places.
Sarah initially plans to sell Faraway Downs, but once she actually goes there, she becomes desperate to hold on to it, especially after her husband is murdered. The Drover is her escort to the property from Darwin, and they come instantly to chalk-and-cheese-style scrapping. Once there, she meets Nullah, one of a group of Aborigines who live and work on the property. Nullah conveniently loses his mother near the start of the film, which allows Sarah to take him under her wing.
In a bid to make her property viable, Sarah decides to drive her cattle across miles and miles of unforgiving land to Darwin, to win a lucrative Army contract. To do so, she enlists the help of The Drover – the only one of the group with any experience of cattle. The rest of the party comprise a child, a drunk, and a couple of Aboriginal women, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Against the odds they triumph over the ‘baddies’ out to sabotage them so they can win the contract themselves. Over the course of the cattle drive, Jackman and Kidman bury their differences and end up together. At that point we thought that the story was over, but we were proved wrong. Nullah still had to be cruelly snatched away to live in an orphanage with other half-caste children, in accordance with the Australian government’s racial policy at the time. Sarah had to be supposed dead and The Drover had to be grief-stricken about Sarah’s supposed death.
True to the Good vs. Evil theme, however, Nullah ends up being rescued and Sarah turns out to still be alive, even after Darwin has been bombed by the Japanese. Still, the story continues. The ‘baddie’ still had to have his last gasp (quite literally, because he died soon after his last nasty deed) and The Drover and Sarah had to fight and seem to break up. And, amazingly, at that point, the film was still playing! It carries on to have more drama and pathos before its rousing finish, leaving the audience to read about the stolen generations and how they finally received an apology for what had happened to so many children and families all those years ago.
While we don’t regret seeing it – and, besides, it would have been ‘un-Australian’ not to have seen it – it was still more drawn out than we expected and it wasn’t exactly a first-class film. Still, Luhrman did try and it did end up being enjoyable. So, not bad overall.