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Film Review: Australia

Bottom Line: In epic style, Baz Luhrmann weaves his wizardry on Oz.

By Megan Lehmann

Opens: Nov. 26, U.S. and Australia (20th Century Fox)

SYDNEY -- With his audaciously titled epic "Australia," Baz Luhrmann has delivered a shamelessly melodramatic, often eccentric spectacle with true-blue blockbuster potential. The most expensive Australian film ever made is rousing and passionate. Despite some cringe-making Harlequin Romance moments between homegrown Hollywood stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, the 1940s-set "Australia" defies all but the most cynical not to get carried away by the force of its grandiose imagery and storytelling.

And, yes, there are kangaroos.

Tourism Australia may have politely requested their inclusion, with hopes for a tourist revival riding on this $130 million Outback tale, along with what seems like the future of the entire local film industry. If Luhrmann felt the weight of that responsibility, it doesn't show. His "Australia" is much less earnest than the trailer suggests, layered with a thin veneer of camp and a nod and a wink to accompany the requisite Aussie cliches.

Having shunned the recent grinding run of bleak suburban micro-dramas, Australians are primed to embrace his monumental magic-realist vision, which honors the country's heritage and celebrates the invigorating majesty of its landscape.

Even if it does run a butt-numbing 2 hours and 45 minutes, the film has broad appeal for international audiences with plenty of stirring action sequences to make the blokes more comfortable with a particularly blatant shot of bare-chested Jackman lathering up under the shower.

Fashioned in the style of classics such as "Gone With the Wind" and "Lawrence of Arabia," "Australia" follows the fortunes of persnickety Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), who inherits a sprawling cattle property in northwestern Australia.

Under threat of a takeover, she reluctantly enlists the help of a Marlboro Man-style stockman known only as the Drover (Jackman) to help drive 1,500 head of cattle across the Top End of Australia to the port of Darwin, ahead of its bombing by the Japanese.

Unlike "Gone With the Wind," which skirted the political context of the Civil War, the controversial issue of the so-called Stolen Generation is more than a mere backdrop for the emotional upheavals experienced by the film's leads. Luhrmann, who makes a habit of upending convention, has plonked the attempted assimilation of mixed-race Aboriginal children into Western culture front and center, making this as much a story of reconciliation between black and white Australia as it is between the untamed local and the aristocratic import.

Enter the film's breakout star: 13-year-old Brandon Walters, playing young mixed-race boy Nullah. By turns cheeky and heartrending, the limpid-eyed newcomer knits the disparate threads of this sweeping epic together, single-handedly lending this showcase of amplified emotions its true heart.

Pin thin and ramrod straight, Kidman gives one of her most engaging performances, occasionally harking back to the comic highs of "To Die For." Meanwhile, Jackman looks good in his Akubra bush hat.

Performances are strong throughout, particularly from David Wenham as Lady Ashley's malevolent rival and David Gulpilil as Nullah's mystical grandfather, King George.

While the "Wizard of Oz" motif is labored and the narrative hits a few speed bumps, all is forgiven when Luhrmann brings out one of his stunning set pieces, like a thrilling cattle stampede along a cliff edge.

Cinematographer Mandy Walker, who collaborated with Luhrmann on his award-winning Chanel No. 5 commercial, creates a sumptuous, painterly look, complemented by impeccable costume and production design from Luhrmann's Oscar-winning wife, Catherine Martin.


Production company: Bazmark Films, 20th Century Fox

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil, Brandon Walters; Director: Baz Luhrmann; Screenwriters: Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan; Producers: Baz Luhrmann, G. Mac Brown, Catherine Knapman; Director of photography: Mandy Walker; Production designer: Catherine Martin; Music: David Hirschfelder; Costume designer: Catherine Martin; Editors: Dody Dorn, Michael McCusker.

No MPAA rating, 165 minutes.




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