I wanted to love "Australia," an epic romance from writer/director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") starring Nicole Kidman and People Magazine's recently named "World's Sexiest Man," Hugh Jackman.
From his radical adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" to his symphonic "Moulin Rouge," Luhrmann has staked a claim as one of Hollywood's most imaginative and visionary filmmmakers.
With "Australia," Luhrmann hoped to make an epic romance on the scale of "Gone With the Wind." Perhaps, he has done so. I've never much cared for "Gone With the Wind" either.
Unlike Luhrmann, I have the ability to be clear and concise. So, let me cut to the chase.
"Australia" is a visually enchanting tour-de-frost featuring, and I'm serious here, Nicole Kidman's worst performance. EVER. Yes, that includes the simply awful "The Stepford Wives."
Unlike "The Stepford Wives" remake, an obviously bad idea from the get go, I understand why Nicole Kidman signed on for this project.
After all, she received an Oscar nomination for her last Luhrmann collaboration, "Moulin Rouge," a film that rests comfortably in my Top 100.
With "Australia," Kidman may very well balance out that Oscar nomination with a well-deserved Razzie nomination (as a Razzie voter myself, I guarantee I'll be nominating her). In "Australia," Kidman overacts, seriously overacts, in the film's early scenes and then never regains her footing in the film's 16 hour running time.
Okay, I'm exaggerating. It just FEELS like 16 hours. It's actually just shy of three hours. Three very LONG hours.
Set in 1939, "Australia" actually feels closer to "The African Queen" to me than it does "Gone With the Wind." Unfortunately, Kidman and Jackman don't have near the chemistry as Hepburn and Tracy and the film stumbles along unconvincingly as Luhrmann pulls out virtually every stop, but proselytizing to manipulative music scores, to try to make us feel what he wants us to feel.
It doesn't work.
The action takes place in, you guessed it, Australia. It's the early days of World War II and Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) has inherited a huge ranch that is vital for raising beef for allied troops. Ashley has arrived at the ranch, Faraway Downs, to confront her cheatin' hubby only to find he's been killed and she's on her own with the ranch and, in order to save the ranch from a genuine baddie (Neil Fletcher) she has to get the cattle to the port at Darwin.
Of course, Lady Ashley seems wholly inappropriate for the whole hardcore ranching scene given her uptight walk, restrictive (and visually unappealing) clothing and general air of snootiness. The lead farm hand, Drover (Hugh Jackman), isn't even remotely impressed but doesn't have much choice other than to deal with her.
Throw into the mix a half-Aborigine boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), the son of the recently murdered King George (David Gulpilil), and you have what should be an emotionally resonant, western-style romance reminiscent of the golden years of Hollywood.
The sad thing about Kidman's awful performance is that Jackman is actually pretty darn good.
While Kidman is the performer most familiar with Luhrmann and his distinct artistic stylings, it seems to be Jackman who most successfully winds his way through the faux sincerity and sweeping romanticism of "Australia." There are moments when Jackman's onscreen that you just have your breath taken away, and it's not just because he's this year's world's sexiest man.
In addition to the uneven performances, Luhrmann stops and starts "Australia" no less than three times. If "Australia" were a captivating film, such an approach might be appealing. It's not, and the approach is just plain irritating.
End the damn thing already.
Perhaps most irritating is Luhrmann's willingness to run nilly willy with the racial stereotypes and discrimination well documented as present in early 20th century Australia. "Australia" is simultaneously critical of Australia's treatment of the aborigines while, in certain scenes, seeming to enforce those very stereotypes.
Odd. Just plain odd.
The script, which Luhrmann co-wrote with Stuart Beattie, is a hodgepodge of ideas from Hollywood's past and most will feel mightily familiar to even the novice moviegoer. The rest of us will find ourselves, as I did, going "Oh, hey. He got that from "Gone With the Wind" or "Didn't Meryl Streep say that in a film?"
You think I'm kidding? Just wait.
Even the almost always dependable, "stodgy lady falls for emotionally vulnerable child" storyline feels emotionally vacant. Remember how awkward Scarlett Johannson was with the kids in "The Nanny Diaries?" Nicole Kidman is awkward in 3-D here.
"Australia," almost despite itself, isn't really an awful film. It's visually appealing, with the exception of the horridly costumed and coiffed Kidman, and the film is very nearly worth sitting through for Jackman's performance alone.
It just should have been so much more.
Oscar bait? PLEASE.
Bring on the Razzies.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic