On the one hand, 'Australia' is a big, sprawling, corny, clichéd mess of a movie. On the other, it's a totally winning, sumptuous romantic saga that lovingly celebrates a host of iconic cinematic images and themes. There's the period plantation setting, western brawling, a military attack, racial discrimination, coming of age, unvarnished greed, noble sacrifice, exotic mysticism, a death-defying journey, a raging stampede, courage and spunk, and an unlikely love affair between two headstrong people from different worlds. By gosh, is there anything 'Australia' doesn't have?
Director Baz Luhrmann dumps all these disparate elements into his kitchen sink epic and somehow shapes it into a cohesive whole. Does the whole have holes? You bet. Is some of the history suspect? Of course. But 'Australia' is the type of film that's made with such good intentions and warm spirits – and tries so hard to entertain – it's easy to forgive. Whether you love it or hate it – and there seems to be no middle ground with this one – largely depends on your personal makeup and what you expect to get out of the experience going in. There's no denying 'Australia' is total escapist fare and an unapologetic throwback to the large-scale romantic adventures of yore. And as such, it incites passionate feelings at both ends of the spectrum. When I saw the movie in a theater with my wife last fall, she started to tear up during the emotional climax, while at the same moment, the woman next to her muttered under her breath, "Can I barf now?"
'Australia' isn't so much about the legendary land Down Under as it is about Hugh Jackman's hairy chest, an adorable Aboriginal child, and Nicole Kidman simultaneously channeling Katharine Hepburn and Scarlett O'Hara. The accents and some of the scenery clue us in to our location, but those expecting some real history along with their side of beefcake will be disappointed. We do learn a bit about the Aboriginal culture and the horrific plight of mixed-race children, but such sober issues remain largely on the narrative fringe.Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) is on a mission. The willful British aristocrat arrives in Darwin, a dusty, provincial seaport on Australia's north shore, in the summer of 1939 to convince her husband Maitland to abandon his folly, sell their faltering cattle business, and come home to England. A scruffy, nomadic cattle driver known as Drover (Jackman) transports her across the desert to Faraway Downs, her husband's ranch, where she discovers Maitland has been murdered. Lady Ashley's first reaction is to flee, but she develops a protective feeling toward the ranch's Aboriginal staff, especially the young mixed-race boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who's constantly in danger of being captured by police, brought to an internment camp, and trained for "service" in white society. She also learns her ranch manager, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), is in cahoots with rival cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), who has long coveted their land and livestock and consistently steals cattle from Faraway Downs. She fires Fletcher after he attacks Nullah for exposing him.
With her finances in ruin, Lady Ashley decides to stay in Australia, and enlists Drover's help to drive her cattle across a sea of barren, blistered terrain back to Darwin, so she can sell them to the Army, break Carney's monopoly, revitalize Faraway Downs with the proceeds, sell the ranch at a hefty profit, and eventually return to England a wealthy woman. Along the way, she abandons her heirs, gains Drover's respect, and – guess what? – falls in love. Plenty of strife, however, awaits the couple and their extended Aboriginal family, as they continue to battle Carney and Fletcher, and later the Japanese, who stage a Pearl Harbor-like attack on Australia's shores.
To appeal to both women and men, Luhrmann cleverly dovetails rough-and-tumble action with gooey love scenes, but in the end, 'Australia' sides with the chicks, not the dudes. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but as a sentimental softie and diehard classic movie fan, I was putty in Luhrmann's hands, and had more fun identifying all the great motion pictures he either paid homage to or ripped off than I did following the overstuffed plot. You don't have to be a film scholar to catch references to 'Gone With the Wind,' 'Giant,' 'The African Queen,' 'Casablanca,' and 'The Searchers'. And, in a nod to Australia's affectionate nickname, Luhrmann slips in actual clips from 'The Wizard of Oz' to wonderful effect. (Give me Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow and you've got me hook, line, and sinker any day of the week.)
Kidman and Jackman make a terrific romantic team, and though both turn in stylized performances, they're fun to watch and seem to relish their roles. Jackman makes the most of ample opportunities to flex his muscles, clench his jaw, and flash his toothy grin, while Kidman transitions well from a spoiled, selfish fish-out-of-water to a sensitive, independent woman who learns how to love, compromise, and fight for what is right. The wide-eyed Walters is captivating as Nullah, and as the slimy Fletcher, Wenham revives the classic movie villain to perfection, creating a measured, repugnant portrait of pure evil.
Its sappy, bloated story and epic length may turn many off to 'Australia,' but Luhrmann nevertheless crafts a lush, sweeping motion picture filled with old-style romance, snappy dialogue, beautiful cinematography, and bold spectacle. In short, it's a tribute to all the conventions and clichés we've loved about movies over the past 75 years. And if you look at it from that standpoint, 'Australia' just might wend its way into your heart.
A film like 'Australia' is a Blu-ray natural, and ever since I saw it at my local multiplex, I've been anxiously awaiting its high-def debut. Fox's 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC rendering almost hits a bulls-eye, but a couple of missteps keep it from earning a perfect rating.
First, the good stuff. The crystal clear image is free of any dirt or debris, and possesses a marvelous depth of field that serves the expansive vistas well. Colors are true, but not overly saturated, so the landscapes maintain their rugged, sandy look. Fleshtones occasionally take on a faint rosy tint, but for the most part accurately represent the varied hues of the multi-racial cast. Black levels are rich and deep, shadow detail is good, and no edge enhancement, banding, or DNR is present.
Though at times the transfer dazzles, with moments of 3-D pop, I expected a bit more dimensionality throughout. Luhrmann loves to shoot extreme close-ups, but the tight shots exude a disappointing flatness that often dulls fine details like facial hair and skin pores. I also found many exteriors to be overly bright, almost to the extent of looking washed out. Luhrmann gives us a good feel for the white hot desert and blistering Aussie sun, but the bleachy look, which I didn't notice in the theater, ever so slightly distracts. 'Australia' also employs a bucket load of CGI effects, which are, unfortunately, much easier to spot in 1080p.
All that said, this is still a superb effort that brings the breathtaking land Down Under to life.
'Australia' benefits from a balanced, nuanced DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that enhances the film without overpowering it. The often stirring musical score makes full use of all the channels as it fashions an immersive feel that adds power and emotion to many scenes. Atmospherics are subtly employed but effective, and distinct sonic accents, such as horse hooves and the chunks of dirt and rock kicked up by the stampeding cattle, are crisp and full-bodied. The subwoofer gets quite a workout with all the galloping horses, cattle rushing, and Japanese bombs, but the bass is well modulated, providing realistic rumbles that never obscure the track's competing elements. Dialogue is always well prioritized, so even in scenes with heavy effects and scoring, conversations come through clearly.
Action sequences enjoy marvelous directionality – the Japanese planes swooping in from behind and cutting across the screen really put us in the thick of battle, and the rampaging cattle feel like they're going to run roughshod right over us – yet seamless imaging unites all the speakers so the audio never sounds choppy.
There's a lot to this track, but it's so well mixed it often runs under our radar and simply complements the drama on screen - which is what really good audio should do.
'Australia' comes bundled with a comprehensive set of supplemental material that's well-produced, informative, and easy on the eyes. There are lots (and lots) of featurettes spotlighting almost every aspect of production, a couple of deleted scenes, and a few trailers. The only glaring omission is an audio commentary, but Luhrmann introduces almost all of the featurettes, and enthusiastically conveys his passion for both this project in particular and filmmaking in general. All video is in 1080p.
'Australia' is not for everyone, but if you love big, romantic, adventure-filled movies – especially classic movies – this glossy epic will surely strike your fancy. Baz Luhrmann almost kills himself trying to entertain us, and he largely succeeds, thanks to an eye-filling production and spirited performances from Kidman, Jackman, and company. The high-quality video and audio transfers and solid array of supplements make this a must-own for fans (of which there are plenty), and worth a look for everyone else.