1939. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) leaves England to join her husband Maitland at their Australian estate of Faraway Downs. She arrives to find Maitland dead from a spear, the water pump failed, the cattle stock in decline and an offer to sell out to cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown). The manager, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) blames Maitland's murder on an Aboriginal King George (David Gulpilil). However, Nullah (Brandon Waters), a young half-caste boy (grandson of King George and illegitimate son of Fletcher) knows the truth: Fletcher is in league with Carney and everything is a plot for them to buy Faraway Downs at a knockdown price...
Baz Luhrmann's Red Curtain trilogy has plenty of fans though I'm not one of them. I liked Simply Ballroom and Romeo and Juliet well enough, while I appreciated the flash and exuberance of Moulin Rouge even if the film as a whole left me cold. Australia is an attempt at the big, sweeping romantic epic they used to make. It's certainly flawed and predictable, but much of it works. I'm surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did, but if you take the film on its own terms it quite shamelessly does work.
That said, this isn't a film that could have been made in the 50s, even if the Australian industry hadn't virtually come to a halt around then. It's a film very much of the here and now, with 21st-century concerns. The liberal attitude of many (not all) of the characters to the Aboriginals is one example, more than a little anachronistic for the time it's set. Luhrmann is a very film-literate director, and Australia is a pick and mix of elements from Australian film history. There's a big cattle drive straight out of the The Overlanders (with Hugh Jackman's Drover channelling the late Chips Rafferty), the Aboriginal “Stolen generation” (Rabbit Proof Fence), and so on. And that's not to forget The Wizard of Oz, as a certain song from it is essential to the plot. Luhrmann continues this theme with his casting of names from the industry's 70s revival – notably Jack Thompson as Sarah's drunken accountant and Bryan Brown (whose career began in the 70s but didn't really become a star until the following decade), but also Ray Barrett, Arthur Dignam, Sandy Gore, Bill Hunter, John Jarratt, Bruce Spence and Kerry Walker in smaller roles. And that's not forgetting David Gulpilil, who gives a no-dialogue role considerable dignity and charisma.
Nicole Kidman has had some stick for her performance, but I will disagree with the majority. She's not the warmest of actresses at the best of time, but that national froideur works well for the part of the initially reserved and stiff Lady Sarah. She and the Drover hate each other at first, but you don't need a degree in film watching to guess how that works out. David Wenham does his best to add ambiguity to what could have been a one-dimensional villain part, and Brandon Waters steals most of his scenes as the young Nullah.
Australia is a stunning-looking film, and I will be very surprised if Mandy Walker doesn't become the first woman to earn a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination. However, one very Noughties sign is an overuse of digital intermediate tweaking (to the extent that some shots end up looking more like hi-def video than film) and of CGI. Somehow those thousands of cattle have less impact when you can tell that most of them are computer generated. The narrative is a bit ramshackle: the love story between Sarah and The Drover takes up ninety minutes, which is followed by half an hour of plot mechanics before Luhrmann brings out a logistically impressive grand finale during the 1941 Japanese bombing of Darwin. A short section about halfway through, with Sarah and the Drover lost in the desert and believed dead seems to have mostly landed on the cutting room floor.
Australia is an unabashedly big film, probably the biggest to come from the country in quite a few years. It's probably not for cynics and will likely attract more women then men to the cinema, but in the terms it sets itself it succeeds more often than it fails.