Down blunder

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Baz Luhrmann's "Australia."
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Baz Luhrmann's "Australia."

'Australia' is a mishmash starring Hugh Jackman's torso and a close-to-dreadful Nicole Kidman.

Posted: November 26, 2008

Long in the making - and almost as long in the watching - Baz Luhrmann's Australia is epic piffle. A Down Under mash-up of vintage Hollywood westerns and romancers, with a whole other World War II movie thrown in after the first hour and a half (it's a pint-sized Pearl Harbor!), this risible cinematic snoozefest stars Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman as the destined-to-be-lovers who can't abide each other when they first meet.

He's Drover, a strapping freelance cattle driver who gallops across sunset-burnished vistas on his trusty steed, thrusting his torso into the wind. (The horse and the man are as one with this torso-thrusting business.)

She's Lady Sarah Ashley, a pallid English aristo arriving in the Northern Territory - with silly glasses and frilly undergarments - to take over her dead husband's tumbledown cattle ranch, Faraway Downs. Her foreman, Fletcher (David Wenham), is a bad dude, though: He's in cahoots with the neighboring cattle baron King Carney (a bearded Bryan Brown), stealing Ashley's livestock and aiming to take the property out from under her.

You would think this fussy, huffy, pampered Brit would be ill-equipped to run a ranch and face off against her bullying antagonist, but you would be terribly, foolishly wrong. With an able assist from this Drover fellow (also known as People's Sexiest Man Alive), Lady Sarah decides to steer 1,500 head of cattle to market, with the goal of saving Faraway Downs and giving Luhrmann the opportunity to outdo John Ford, Howard Hawks and William Wyler in the cattle driving/stirring-symphonic-soundtrack montage.

Bringing Drover and Lady Sarah together in this unlikely alliance is the young, beautiful orphan boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), an Aboriginal Caucasian who works at Faraway Downs but is in danger of being carted off to a state-run camp for mixed-race Aborigines. (Australia's decades-long practice of trying to isolate and eradicate the Aboriginal people and its "half-castes" is an ethnic tragedy that resulted in what's known as the Stolen Generations.)

Nullah is too cute for words, and his presence allows Luhrmann to incorporate sociopolitical commentary, indigenous folk mysticism - and some dazzling surreal imagery - into the film.

Set in late 1939, Australia actually tips its (bush) hat to one of that year's most luminous Hollywood gems: The Wizard of Oz. It is appropriated, not only because Aussies like to refer to their continent of a country as Oz, but also because of its There's no place like home credo and "Over the Rainbow" song of hope. Kidman, at one point, actually sings the Harold Arlen classic - it is not a version destined for hitdom.

Kidman, in fact, is close to dreadful in Australia. Whether Luhrmann told her to act like she was doing a cartoon, or she just decided that all on her own, her performance is at once one-note and over-the-top. The actress - rail-thin, deploying a stiff upper lip that probably has less to do with her character than with a collagen regimen - isn't even photographed in a particularly flattering manner.

The camera's awe and appreciation are reserved for Australia's leading man: It's hard to think of another recent movie where a male movie star's pecs and abs and rippling musculature have been shot with such worshipful ardor. You could argue that Luhrmann, and Jackman, are playing up the actor's honed physique with a tongue-in-cheek jollity, and certainly, like the film itself, it's hard to take Jackman's Drover seriously.

There is, without doubt, a lot of corn in Australia. Not in the picturesque Northern Territory, with its dusty plains, snaking rivers, and red rock mesas, but certainly in the multicredited screenplay. Too bloody right, mate.


Australia ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Baz Luhrmann. With Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Bryan Brown and Brandon Walters. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, violence, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.

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