Baz Luhrmann’s continent-size epic, “Australia,” isn’t the greatest story ever — it’s several dozen of the greatest stories ever told, “The African Queen,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” included. A pastiche of genres and references wrapped up — though, more often than not, whipped up — into one demented and generally diverting horse-galloping, cattle-stampeding, camera-swooping, music-swelling, mood-altering widescreen package, this creation story about modern Australia is a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion.
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Mr. Luhrmann’s use of culturally degraded forms both here and in earlier films like “Moulin Rouge” doesn’t register as either a conceptual strategy or a cynical commercial ploy or some combination of the two, as it can with art world jesters like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, who have appropriated kitsch as a (more or less) legitimate postmodern strategy. Instead it feels — feeling being paramount in all of Mr. Luhrmann’s films — like a sincere cry from the swelling, throbbing heart, a true expression of self. And while that self and its gaudy work may be stitched together from the bits and pieces of pop culture — the son of a movie-theater owner, Mr. Luhrmann grew up worshiping at the altar of Hollywood — they are also wholly sincere.
Sincere, if also sometimes confused and confusing: though there is no denying the scope and towering ambition of “Australia,” which was largely shot on location in the outback, it can be difficult to gauge Mr. Luhrmann’s intentions, or rather his level of self-awareness. The film begins with some text that scrolls importantly across the screen, immediately setting the uncertain tone with some (serious?) twaddle about Australia as a land of “adventure and romance.” Before you have a chance to harrumph indignantly about the oppression of the Aborigines (or sneer at the country’s early imported criminal population), the text has skipped to the topic of “the stolen generations,” the children of indigenous peoples who, from the 19th century well into the 20th, were forcibly separated from their cultures by white Australians in the name of God and civilization.
But no worries! Though “Australia” is narrated by a young boy of mixed race, Nullah (the newcomer Brandon Walters), the illegitimate son of an Aboriginal mother and a white father, who is trying to escape the authorities, and while it opens in 1939, shortly before World War II blasted Australian shores, the film isn’t a bummer. Like every other weighty or would-be weighty moment that passes through Mr. Luhrmann’s soft-filtering lens — a man being trampled to death by rampaging cattle or a city being annihilated by bombing Japanese warplanes — the calamities of history are merely colorful grist for his main interest, the romance between a wilted English rose, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and an itinerant Australian cattleman, the Drover (Hugh Jackman).
The lady and the tramp meet soon after she lands in Australia to track down her cattleman husband, whose early murder sets all the narrative pieces in place. Initially intent on selling her property, including 1,500 head of cattle, Sarah soon transforms into a frontierswoman, seduced by Nullah’s smile and the majestic valleys and peaks of both the land and of the Drover’s musculature. Although Ms. Kidman and Mr. Jackman are initially riffing on Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart’s prickly courtship in “The African Queen” — later, as they heat up, they slip into a sexier Scarlett-and-Rhett dynamic — only Ms. Kidman really embraces the more comic and potentially embarrassing aspects of her role, giving herself over to Mr. Luhrmann and his occasionally cruel camera with a pronounced lack of vanity.
Though looking bad (or at least less than perfect) on camera is a particular form of vanity for actors, Ms. Kidman has in recent years generally erred on the side of physical perfection, sometimes to the detriment of her performances. But she’s wonderfully and fully expressive here, from wince-worthy start to heartbreaking finish, whether she’s wrinkling her nose in mock disgust or rushing across a dusty field, her arms pumping so wildly that it’s a wonder well water doesn’t spring from her mouth. It’s a ludicrous role — not long after priming her pump, the barren widow turns into a veritable fertility goddess — but she rides Sarah’s and the story’s ups and downs with ease. Mr. Jackman gives the movie oomph; Ms. Kidman gives it a performance.
More than anything else in the film, Nullah included, Ms. Kidman tethers “Australia” to the world of human feeling and brings Mr. Luhrmann’s outrageous flights of fancy down to earth. That may not be where he prefers to make movies, but it’s a necessary place for even a fantasist to visit. Although many of his Western contemporaries like to root around in down-and-dirty realism, Mr. Luhrmann maintains a full-throttle commitment to cinematic illusion and what he characterizes as the “heightened artifice” of his so-called Red Curtain trilogy, “Strictly Ballroom,” “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge.” You may not always see the people for the production design in these, but when you do — as in “Romeo + Juliet” and sometimes here — they spring forth from their fantastical milieus like fists.
A maximalist, Mr. Luhrmann doesn’t simply want to rouse your laughter and tears: he wants to rouse you out of a sensory-overloaded stupor with jolts of passion and fabulous visions. That may make him sound a wee bit Brechtian, but he’s really just an old-fashioned movie man, the kind who never lets good taste get in the way of rip-roaring entertainment. The usual line about kitsch is that it’s an affront, a cheapening of the culture, a danger. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession,” Milan Kundera wrote. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”
True, but it doesn’t make the second tear any less wet.
“Australia” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some bloody violence, many stampeding hooves.
Opens on Wednesday nationwide.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann; written by Mr. Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Dody Dorn and Michael McCusker; music by David Hirschfelder; production designer, Catherine Martin; produced by Mr. Luhrmann, G. Mac Brown and Catherine Knapman; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.
WITH: Nicole Kidman (Lady Sarah Ashley), Hugh Jackman (the Drover), David Wenham (Neil Fletcher), Bryan Brown (King Carney), Jack Thompson (Kipling Flynn), David Gulpilil (King George) and Brandon Walters (Nullah).