First off, the title's all wrong. "Australia" sounds like a James Michener tome, weighty with scholarship, ponderous in scope and shallow of technique. This lollapalooza should be called "Australia!" with a holler-out-loud exclamation point. At the very least, call it "Baz Luhrmann's Australia."
Luhrmann, the artsy Aussie auteur who gave us hip-hop Shakespeare and a Bollywood take on French can-can movies, turns the story of his homeland into a cinematic platypus. It combines brawling comedy, racial/political subplots, romantic melodrama, full-blown lyricism and grandiose vistas that must thrill Australia's national tourist board. It shouldn't live, let alone crackle with vitality but crikey, mate, does it ever. It's not Luhrmann's best work to date (for my money that would be his last film, 2001's deliriously stylish "Moulin Rouge"), but it has crowd-rousing flair to spare.
The central presence of "Australia" is Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a prim prude who takes charge of a vast cattle station in the Northern Territory after her husband's murder. The time is the eve of World War II and the Australian army is in need of beef. She faces cutthroat competition -- more or less literally -- from domineering cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his villainous flunky, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham).
"It's a poor war that doesn't provide a decent patriot a good profit," growls Carney, who aims to be the monopoly supplier.
Sarah's guide to life Down Under is the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a roughneck cowpoke whose love for aborigines makes him an outcast in racist Australian society. His sense of fair play (and the promise of a fat paycheck) persuade him to help the widow compete with Carney and move 1,500 head through the outback to the port of Darwin.
The drive is fraught with drama as Carney's minions try to sabotage their rivals. Along the trail, the rough-hewn rogue and the willowy aristocrat follow the time-tested path through loathing to love. At their side through it all is Nullah (12-year-old Brandon Walters), a mixed-race boy who narrates the unfolding story with a beguiling mix of folk wisdom and childlike wonder.
The operatically inclined Luhrmann can't help but make his story into a quasi-musical, underscoring the action with cues from Elton John to Edward Elgar. But it's "The Wizard of Oz" that serves as the film's inspiration.
Sarah's trip from England to the bizarre Pacific colony parallels Dorothy's journey from Kansas to a world of wonders. Kidman even comically mangles "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in a voice grating enough to shred Parmesan. Her rummy accountant is a not-so-distant relation to the Cowardly Lion, while the Wizard of this tale is King George (aboriginal musician and actor David Gulpilil), who magically appears on the scene whenever his grandson Nullah needs him. "Over the Rainbow" reprises cheerfully, plaintively, even triumphantly as the story moves from its high-spirited opening chapters to wartime drama when Japanese dive bombers flatten Darwin and the Aussies courageously respond.
Jackman is enormously appealing as a jovial hunk with a deep streak of heroism. He proves his right to his new title as People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive with a soapy shower scene that will have many a heart fluttering. Luhrmann and Jackman both realize he's a mouthwatering slab of man candy and they carry off the joke with a knowing wink. (Note to self: Work out more.)
Kidman's character has the widest arc of development, evolving from a stuffy, ridiculous tenderfoot to a stout-hearted frontierswoman. Her romantic scenes with Jackman, scandalizing Darwin's white-gloved society matrons, carry a believable charge of sexual tension.
It's young Walters who steals the show, though. With eyes the size of ostrich eggs, a shock of brown-blond hair and a megawatt smile, he's instant screen royalty. He nails every scene he's in, and when he's offscreen you're counting the minutes till he reappears.
The film's focus is on a tight ensemble of players, but it has big issues on its mind, specifically the state policy of removing mixed-race children from their aboriginal parents. These children, known as the Stolen Generations, represent a chapter of Australian racism as troubling as slavery in the United States or apartheid in South Africa. The film seeks to shed light on that ugly era in the nation's history, and perhaps help mend it.
Message movie, musical, South Pacific western, war epic and love story rolled into one, "Australia" is as expansive and lively as the nation-continent it celebrates, a 165-minute banquet of delicious too-muchness.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186