When McDonald’s eliminated its super-size option a few years ago, that agonized scream you heard was Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, for whom gratuitous excess is a way of life. Having previously inflated competitive dancing (Strictly Ballroom), Shakespeare (Romeo + Juliet) and the modern musical (Moulin Rouge!), all to charming if somewhat exhausting effect, Luhrmann has apparently concluded that nothing short of an entire continent can contain his go-large extravagance at this point. Thus, Australia, a three-hour epic that piles aboriginal mysticism on top of romance-novel ardor on top of Western cattle drives on top of WWII bombing campaigns, slathering it all with generous, sticky helpings of Hollywood’s beloved 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz. (Get it? Oz? Australia?) This time, however, even longtime Luhrmann fans are likely to wind up feeling bloated and nauseous. Australia is all exhaustion and no charm.
For some reason, Luhrmann has now twice cast Nicole Kidman, even though there may be no movie star less temperamentally suited to his breathless, overheated style. She’s certainly game, though. Here, she strides forcefully into prissy caricature as Lady Sarah Ashley, an uptight Englishwoman—even in a movie called Australia, poor Kidman can’t use her own accent!—who decides to take over her late husband’s remote cattle farm, Faraway Downs. But to get her 1,500 head safely to market, avoiding the nefarious schemes of rival cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), she’ll need the assistance of a rugged hunk of man-flesh known only as The Drover (Hugh “sexiest man alive” Jackman), whose easygoing manner flummoxes her mightily. And both Sarah and The Drover will gradually become surrogate parents to Nullah (Brandon Walters), a 12-year-old “half-caste” boy shunned by aborigines and whites alike. Oh, and did I mention that it’s 1942, and Japanese fighter planes are fast approaching?
Usually, there’s a point in a Baz Luhrmann movie, often roughly an hour in, at which you finally stop fighting and just surrender to the tumult. When you reach that point in Australia, however, there are still two punishing hours—and at least half a dozen cloying iterations of “Over the Rainbow”—left to go. Nor does this material support such hyperactivity. Until it abruptly metamorphoses into a WWII action flick in the final third, this is fundamentally a Western, the laziest and most relaxed of all movie genres; leering close-ups and pompous crane shots come across as oddly intrusive set against wide open spaces. What’s more, it often seems as if what we’re seeing has been chopped down from perhaps four or five hours—we never quite learn how our heroes escape from one particular potential danger, and the movie’s primary villain, King Carney, winds up being dispatched almost in passing, during the middle of a lengthy montage.
There’s still plenty of time for condescension, though. Australia opens with an expository title card bemoaning the treatment of mixed-race aborigines like Nullah, and Luhrmann, who co-wrote the script, clearly feels properly guilty about this shameful aspect of his country’s past. And yet he proceeds to treat the film’s aboriginal characters as mystical Others, even going so far as to have Nullah stop the herd from stampeding over a cliff by striking a “magic” pose he’s learned from his wise old grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil). Later, The Drover’s quietly noble right-hand man, after giving a quietly noble speech designed to reunite the two white lovers, quietly and nobly sacrifices himself to the invading Japanese troops. It’s a truly corrosive form of respect—well-intentioned, to be sure, but destructive all the same. Australia could use less of almost everything, but a whole lot less of that.