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Admittedly, whenever the word outback crossed my mind it was either followed by thoughts of Aussie chips, Crocodile Dundee or baby-devouring dingos.  Homesteads and cattle drives akin to those in stories of the pioneers of the American Wild West never occurred to me.  Apparently, cowboys (- and girls)  did exist in the land down under and with Australia, director Baz Luhrmann dons his best John Ford drag to tell us so.

In this old timey story of cattle barons and rustlers, Lady Sarah Ashley traverses the hemisphere after her husband, aiming to extract him from the farmland that has kept in Oz too long for Sarahís comfort.  Despite all worries and warnings for her feminine delicacy, Sarah is a modern woman of the 1930ís and intent on making the crossing into the middle of the country, forcibly accompanied only by the Drover, a rough and tumble cattle herder who enjoys his freedom as much as he dislikes Sarahís imperious, prissy ways.  Sarah arrives to find the ranch, Faraway Downs, in chaos with virtually no alternative but to sell out to her husbandís biggest competitor, King Carney.  The culture shock of the wild outback astonishes the high-strung noblewoman, who finds herself taking charge of Nullah, a young Aborigine boy on the ranch whose mixed breeding makes him liable to be dragged away from his family to a mission whose whole purpose is to segregate the lighter children and keep them from procreating with darker folks of their own race.  Saving Faraway Downs and keeping Nullah from the clutches of government-sponsored racists sends Sarah, the Drover, and her small band of rag-tag ranch hands on a hell-bent-for-leather cattle drive across the Australian desert in a last ditch effort to beat King Carneyís nefarious scheme to force her out.

All this and World War II; itís a heck of a lot of movie Australia is. ĎTis the season for prestige films that go on and on for three years trying to impress the Academy, yet despite its hefty 165-minute running time, I was up for every minute of Australia.  You name it, itís here; got your manly-man fisticuffs and cowboy action, your hate-each-other-then-love-each-other-madly romance between two gorgeous stars, stunning Howard Hawks style cinematography of the plains and mountains of the Australian Outback, wartime pyrotechnics, a racism-is-bad political message, fabulous costumes from a glamourous era, a Snidely Whiplash eeevil villain to hiss at and a heart-tugging story about an endangered adorable little kid.  In hands less agile, a production of this scope and size holds the potential for disaster, but helmed by the man who reignited the movie musical with the surreal fever dream, Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmannís Australia is simultaneously old-fashioned and post-modern and all classic.

If this movie doesnít make Hugh Jackman a bona-fide movie star, nothing will.  Iíve been rooting for Jackman to be taken seriously Stateside for anything other than his ability to snarl becomingly whilst sporting the worldís worst mutton chops and leather jumpsuit in the X-Men movies, but time and again, my hopes were dashed.  Baz Luhrmann appears to have heard my pleas and as the rugged Australian alpha-male Drover, Jackman is equal parts Clark Gable, Alan Ladd, John Wayne and Gary Cooper.  The Drover is strong, silent type with a chip on his shoulder and pain in his heart, who will be owned by neither man nor Kid-man.  Speaking of wish-fulfillment, I would like to personally thank Mr. Luhrmann for an early payoff in which Drover demonstrates how to keep so fresh and so clean during those long rides across the outback.  The shirtless sudsing and bucket-rinse - complete with audience-winking Greek God poses provides an opportunity for heterosexual men across the planet to say, ďEgads, thatís guyís handsome,Ē with self-impunity.  Playing up his starís muscular, earthy physique, Luhrmann almost makes Jackman into a fetish object; if heís neither sans shirt nor in a form-fitting Henley undershirt, Jackmanís in a Bogart-sharp white jacketed tux as if to impress upon us his utter star-worthy ness.  Thanks, Baz, for serious.

Nicole Kidmanís gotten a lot of stick in the press lately for having turned into some kind of ice-lady (- where it came from, I dunno), but in Australia, that image is grabbed by the short horns and used to perfection as the willful, prim-and-proper Englishwoman whoís wound a bit too tight.  Lady Sarah has, for all intents, been abandoned by her husband for a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere.  Her intention to single-handedly set things to rights, heedless of the conditions or dangers she could find herself in is all fish-out-of water laughs for the first 20 minutes of the film.  The rough, unpretentious land and people she discovers are nothing like sheís ever experienced and sheís forced by her aggrieved circumstances to remove the stick out of her immaculately tailored backside.  As Sarah comes to care both for the Drover and for the threatened little boy, Nullah, the stiff upper lip loosens and the ice queen thaws, becoming a fighter, lover and a mother.  I would actually have liked more by way of love scenes between Sarah and the Drover; their chemistry deserved more of a payoff.  Another aspect I enjoyed is Kidman playing a character who is not a young girl, but a capable, assertive (- perhaps to a fault) grown woman.  Like everybody else in the audience, Sarah is staring with eyes bugged out at the Droverís bucket wash (- and washboard).  When Sarah has to make a decision to let Nullah go on Walkabout, the Aboriginal rite of passage, with his grandfather, her panicked refusal is the fear of a woman whoís finally found her family.  Special luv must go to Brandon Walters for his preternatural debut performance as Nullah, the half-caste Aborigine trapped between two worlds, who is the soul of the entire film.  With the most stunning pair of limpid black eyes this side of a Goya painting, the young boy holds the world in a his gaze while keeping all the innocence of a lad never off the homestead.  Sweet and charming without every being precocious, Walters makes Sarahís lioness-like devotion to Nullah totally understandable.

Australia starts with the broad, campy humour Luhrmann injects into all his films, quirky camera cuts and slapstick, but the yukfest passes quickly once the ranchers start on the cattle drive.  The cattle race features some of the most gorgeous scenery in the film and a heart-pounding stampede that will knock you for a loop.  The last act is the Japanese bombing of the Australian coast and seems the most superfluous of the piece, but itís still filmed beautifully and the explosions are neat.  Thereís a Wizard of Oz theme that does get old after a while: Okay, we get it, the little Aborigine boy is on a journey and heís got to find his way home, we really donít have to hear various instrumentations of Over the Rainbow a hundred times.  Nullahís grandfather popping up everywhere as the mystical Jiminy Cricket of the piece gets a little stale, as well.  Iím feeling you, original people!  Laughably bad is the character of Fletcher, the double-dealing bad guy, played by Lord of the Ringsí David Wenham.  Wenham is sneeringly fine for what heís given, but his pure obsession with murdering the small half-Aboriginal boy becomes jokingly repetitive.

Small gripes, these, and certainly not enough to keep me from wanting to see Australia again the minute it was over.  I adored it for the keeping alive so many of the sumptuous, romanced-drenched elements of classic films like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and Giant, and for its gorgeous, ambitious epic scale all achieved with Luhrmannís inimitable style.  Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are at their best and awfully nice to look at.  Whatís not to love? 


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Nov 26th 2008









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