It takes a half hour before you're able to put a finger on the tone and tactic of Baz Luhrmann
's Australia. First steps are taken on shaky legs until the sweeping picture hits its stride. After that, you're given an additional two-and-a-half-hours to determine whether or not you like what's attempted.
At 165 minutes, Australia is ambitious to a point -- and then, to a fault. You can actually point to two movies jockeying for position on screen (well, one full story and the seeds of another). And while I quite liked the primary story, the third-act coda struck me as fodder for a potential sequel I wasn't prepared to sit through at the time. Article continues below
Luhrmann and three credited screenwriters begin Australia on Far Away Downs, a cattle ranch owned by Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman
) and operated, up until now, by her late husband. Ashley makes the long journey from London to shut down and sell off the property. But criminal plotting by rival cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown
) and his chief thug, Fletcher (David Wenham
), cause a change of heart. She recruits a raffish guide known only as The Drover (Hugh Jackman
) for a harsh cross-country trek to deliver her cattle to the port town of Darwin so Carney can't sell his beef and purchase Ashley's land.
With that, Luhrmann sets the foundation for a recognizable yet timeless underdog story, an old-Hollywood throwback set in the picturesque Australian Outback where Jackman's impossibly dashing hero aides Kidman's headstrong heroine in her last-ditch efforts to foil the greedy plans of the dastardly villains. It's broadly drawn (often comically so, particularly when it comes to Wenham's evil Fletcher), and Luhrmann's sketchy CGI looks chintzy against Australia's gorgeous, barren natural landscapes. But the sheer adventure, gratifying chivalry, vaudevillian laughter, and unabashed romance of it all can be contagious.
But Luhrmann just doesn't know when enough's enough. Long after the drive has reached a satisfying conclusion, Australia continues to slog through a drawn-out rescue mission, comeuppance for a villain who's already been served, a near-death experience for Ashley, and a Japanese aerial invasion that marks Australia's entrance into World War II.
Imagine being told in the ninth inning of a hard-fought game that the league actually scheduled you a double-header. Working up the energy for Baz's back-to-back adventures is exhausting, and the length of Australia takes its toll over the last 50 minutes. Apparently Luhrmann wasn't prepared to part ways with his characters once his bovine story line had subsided, so he cobbled together half-hearted assignments meant to prolong their stay. There's enough material in Australia to warrant a mini-series, which is how the feature film plays out. In one sitting, it's a tough sit.