“Australia” is an old-fashioned Western with a bit of traditional war movie tacked on to the end, drawing much of its inspiration from John Wayne pictures. It begins as an amalgamation of “Donovan’s Reef” and “North to Alaska,” spiced up with a Sergio Leone shot or two before moving on to the Outback and morphing into “Red River.” Call it “Once Upon a Time in the Antipodes.”
During the film’s 1939-1942 time frame, the Japanese attack the city of Darwin, on the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory. The European-influenced history of the island is ignored before that time. Director/co-screenwriter Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo + Juliet”) appears to be interested mostly in the laws discriminating against people of mixed Aboriginal and British blood, and in pretending to be John Ford.
The story opens with Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, “The Golden Compass,” “Margot at the Wedding”) in England wondering why her absent husband won’t sell the cattle station he owns down under “ Faraway Downs “ so debts that are owed back home can be settled.
In a rage at not hearing from him, she sails to the other side of the earth. Hubby has promised to send a good man to meet her arrival, someone known as The Drover (Hugh Jackman, “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “The Prestige”). Unfortunately, when the ship arrives, Drover is in the middle of a fight in The Territory Saloon. This causes Drover and Lady Sarah to get off on the wrong foot. You expected otherwise?
On arrival at Faraway Downs, Sarah finds that her husband is dead and the manager he left behind, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, “300,” “Van Helsing”), is a racist and a brute who begins beating a half-caste boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) and his Aborigine mother. Fiery Lady Ashley slashes his face with a riding crop, fires him and orders him off her land. It isn’t important how, but she recruits Drover and his two men to join with her and her house servants to drive 1,500 head of cattle to Darwin for sale to the government. Think John Wayne’s movie “The Cowboys.”
Of course, Faraway Downs is only the second biggest cattle operation in the Territory. The largest belongs to King “ as in King Ranch. Carney (Bryan Brown, “Poseidon,” “Along Came Polly”), who hires Fletcher and is determined to beat Drover to the sale. Think “Coroner Creek” and about half the westerns ever made.
“Australia” is proof, if more were needed, that a movie doesn’t have to be good in order to be entertaining, which this one is from beginning to end. I suppose a love of Westerns helps, but the fact is that Kidman is as icily gorgeous as ever and Jackman just might deserve that People magazine designation as “Sexiest Man Alive.” They do make a striking couple. In addition, the scenic beauty of at least parts of the Northern Territory is remarkable. Luhrmann is as devoted as ever to trick shots, many of which look processed. He should just let the land speak for itself, but alas, that’s not one of the lessons he learned from John Ford.
Also like Ford, at least in his later films, Luhrmann feels the need to address a long-standing societal wrong. Mixed-blood children like Nullah were taken by force from their mothers and shipped off to Missionary Island, where they were, ostensibly, converted by force to Christianity and taught how to be the servants of “white fellas,” as those of European heritage were known by their menials. Sarah and Drover being drawn together by their mutual affection for Nullah is the heart of the movie’s traditional romance.
The cast is uniformly excellent, so don’t be put off by the film’s first 20 minutes or so, wherein everything is played very broadly “ so much so, in fact, you may start looking at your watch and despairing of the next two and half hours. Look especially for David Gulpilil (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”) as Nullah’s medicine man grandfather, Jacek Koman (“Romulus, My Father,” “Children of Men”) as the bartender with the heart of gold, and Jack Thompson (“Leatherheads,” “The Good German”) as alcoholic accountant Kipling Flynn.
The script is by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan. There’s nothing startling in it except for its mashup quality. What Quentin Tarantino does for B-grade exploitation movies, these guys have done here for Westerns. The music has that same something-borrowed quality, liberally paraphrasing Bach, Elgar and “Waltzing Matilda.”
A long-standing assumption in America is that Australians are pretty much like us. According to “Australia,” we’re all just cowboys on this bus.