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Because he's working as an artist in the 21st century, Baz Luhrmann makes movies. But let there be no doubt: If not for this fluke of history, he'd be creating operas.
Or maybe it's more accurate to say that he does create operas he just happens to be recording them on film. In William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann employed a grand sort of cinematic theatricality, using big stories to capture big emotions.
So Australia is exactly the kind of story (or, more specifically, two stories) you'd expect from Luhrmann, painted on a canvas the size of a continent. For the first 85 minutes, the film's a sprawling Western set in 1939 Northern Australia, where English noblewoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is pushing her husband to sell a failing cattle ranch. But soon Lord Ashley is dead, perhaps the victim of a power play by local cattle baron "King" Carney (Bryan Brown).
Unwilling to surrender to Carney's thuggery, Sarah hires a cowboy known as The Drover (Hugh Jackman) to lead the herd to the town of Darwin, where a contract to supply beef to the war effort could save the ranch.
Thus begins an old-fashioned white-hats-vs.-black-hats brand of melodrama, as Sarah, Drover and their makeshift crew try to survive the machinations of Carney and his henchman Fletcher (David Wenham). And on that level grand music, panoramic cinematography, a little lovin' around the campfire it genuinely works.
You do have to make it through Kidman's squeal-filled early performance, but eventually Luhrmann settles into a satisfying throwback rhythm mixed with a touch of magical realism. It's not every filmmaker who could give a standard-issue stampede sequence a mysticism to match its sheer ferocity.
There is, however, another 70 minutes still to go when Sarah and Drover finish the drive, which launches the second half of the feature.
Now it's time for an epic wartime romance, combined with the dark chapter in Australia's history in which mixed-race children were isolated from their Aboriginal families. Not only are Sarah and Drover separated as the action moves through 1941, but Sarah is separated from Nullah (Brandon Walters), the "half-caste" boy to whom she has become a surrogate mother.
Luhrmann desperately wants this tale to pack as much of an emotional wallop as the love affair between Sarah and Drover, but by splitting his attention between pure romance and a political point, he ends up shortchanging both. And while Jackman nails the thawing of Drover's broken heart, Kidman never seems to get a handle on Sarah.
Luhrmann finally works on the largest possible scale as he re-creates the Japanese air attack on Darwin. Indeed, it's an impressive pyrotechnic display, providing the backdrop for his principal characters not knowing which among the others is alive or dead. It's also something of a trap, and for too long at the end of Australia, he's just pushing the plungers for the explosives.
Australia still hits some of those unmistakable Luhrmann notes. For instance, Nullah's infatuation with The Wizard of Oz and its theme of returning home somehow makes "Over the Rainbow" feel plaintive rather than campy.
But where even the grandest opera is uncomplicated, driven by themes of love and betrayal and redemption, Australia finds Luhrmann over-reaching, stapling two movies together and trying to wrap his arms around too big an aria.