With a running time of two hours and forty-five minutes, director Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is not so much an epic period romance than it is a series of shorter unrelated films barely connected by the appearance of people who may or may not be the same characters. At turns a John Ford western filtered through a chick flick sensibility, an homage to The Wizard Of Oz, a smaller-scale version of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, a remake of Gone With The Wind set in the Outback and a love letter to the director’s country of birth, Australia is a sprawling hodge-podge of a film that adds up to much less than the sum of its parts.
British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) heads to Australia where her husband has been toiling to start a cattle business in the northern territory. Her trip is ill-timed, as she arrives to find him murdered, presumably at the hands of the local aborigine tribal chief. After discovering that her husband’s manager has been sabotaging the cattle station in order to give a rival businessman a monopoly, Sarah decides to not sell the ranch but deliver the cattle to the port city of Darwin hundreds of miles away, to secure a lucrative contract to supply the Australian army with beef which will save the cattle station. Against her better judgment, she enlists the help of a freelance cattle driver known only as Drover (Hugh Jackman).
Along the drive, Sarah and Drover’s headstrong personalities continually clash until by the end they realize that what they are is in love with each other. However, before they can grow too comfortable in their new found relationship, they find themselves separated when the Japanese fleet that bombed Pearl Harbor turns its attention south towards Australia.
What is aggravating about the mishmash of style and story is that each individual element is enough for its own movie. Not that they as presented here would be good movies, mind you. The film’s first half is stunningly photographed, with long sweeping vistas of the Australian outback recalling how the great John Ford would photograph Utah’s Monument Valley in his westerns. When the big cattle drive is concluded and Drover and Sarah admit their love, one is ready for the music score to swell and the end credits to roll.
However, Luhrmann keeps going on, shifting the film’s visual look from the naturalistic hues of its first half to the steely grays of the war story section of the film. This entire section is clearly modeled after Michael Bay’s bloated war romance Pearl Harbor from visual pallet to numerous story beats. Even if one liked Bay’s film, and I did not particularly, its echo here only underscores the derivative nature of Luhrmann’s work. Ultimately, Australia feels as if Luhrmann filmed two movies with the same cast all at once, but then forgot to separate them into two films.
But this could almost be excused, if one looks at Australia as Luhrmann’s attempt to make his own version of Gone With The Wind. You have the two antagonistic characters who realize that they love each other only to have their short-lived happiness torn apart by war. Luhrmann even tries to draw a parallel to Gone With The Wind’s slavery to the plight on Australia’s aborigine natives, mostly through the inclusion of a half-aborigine child that Sarah takes under her wing.
But Gone With The Wind is about how the forces of history brought together and then broke apart Rhett and Scarlett all the while causing massive economic and social upheaval. Here, though, there is no grander backdrop felt. Sure, war will change any country’s course, but as it is presented in Luhrmann’s film, it seems almost inconsequential. Nothing shown changes the plight of the aborigines. That doesn’t happen for another 30 years according to some closing text. Instead, Sarah and Drover head off to their ranch, reunited and seemingly oblivious to the conflict that is shaking the rest of the world. The Japanese attack comes off as more of an inconvenience in their lives than anything of lasting consequence to themselves or the country. This leaves the audience wondering why we are bothering with the whole thing to begin with.