Every now and then a film comes along that transports you to a different cinematic era, forcing you to suspend disbelief and allow the movie to be exactly what its meant to be … old-fashioned entertainment. Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”, “Romeo + Juliet”) is certainly known for lavish productions and melodramatic storylines and he continues to show skill in handling a production both large in scope and impressive in detail.
“Australia” is Luhrmann’s most recent film, which begins in 1939 when Nullah (Brandon Walters) - a young Aboriginal boy - witnesses the death of a small cattle farm owner. The owner was the husband of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) who’s on her way from England to Australia to check up on him at their rundown cattle farm, Faraway Downs. When Sarah arrives she is met by Drover (Hugh Jackman), who was sent by her husband in exchange for herding his cattle and taking the pay. Drover and Sarah couldn’t be more different; he spends his days outdoors droving and considers himself tied to nothing. Sarah, however, is prim and accustomed to a certain way of life. Needless to say, it’s their differences that eventually bring them together after an initial chill.
But “Australia” isn’t only a story of love between two headstrong souls, it’s an epic tale of Sarah’s desperation to save Faraway Downs and avenge the wrongful treatment of Nullah who, because he’s biracial, will be sent to a mission where he - along with others known as “The Stolen Generation” - will be forced to forget their Aboriginal heritage and customs. This is one of the more saddening and compelling aspects of the story, especially considering how it wasn’t until 1973 that the Australian Government stopped this policy. Nullah is watched over by his Grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil) who teaches him magical, mystical abilities. There is a scene when Nullah stands on the edge of a cliff to face a herd of cattle that is especially powerful.
When Sarah decides to herd the cattle and run Faraway Downs, she turns to Dover for help. Together they - along with help from several people who worked at Faraway Downs and Nullah - make their way through some desperate situations and close calls along the lines of an epic Western. The film even throws in a villain in the form of King Carney (Bryan Brown), who owns another cattle farm. His future son-in-law, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) worked at Faraway Downs until Sarah kicked him out for his appalling behavior. With the army in need of beef, Carney wants to be their only supplier, but Sarah and Dover make a great effort to herd their cattle in time to beat Carney out of his earnings and his place as the only successful cattle farmer in that area.
“Australia” has an enormous scope and captures the backdrop of this story perfectly with rich hues and postcard-perfect compositions throughout. There are some shots that literally take your breath away. Cinematographer Mandy Walker ("Shattered Glass"), production designer Catherine Martin (the director's wife, who has worked on all of his prior films), set decorator Beverly Dunn ("Star Wars" prequels) and others contribute superb behind-the-scenes work. As for the performances, Jackman gives a great performance as Dover and Kidman does a lovely job going from somewhat frail and uppity to strong and passionate.
The person who really stands out though, is Walters as Nullah. His performance is incredibly engaging and his scenes with Kidman are some of the best. Without Walters, “Australia” would have suffered. “Australia” is exactly what it sets out to be: moving, lavish, epic and 100% the work of Baz Lurhman. "Australia" does have some faults - it could be trimmed by a few minutes, for example - but for those seeking old-fashioned entertainment, it works more often than not.
VIDEO: "Australia" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The screening copy of the film that was provided offered average image quality, with inconsistent sharpness/detail and some noticable instances of pixelation and shimmer. However, this is still not the retail copy and unfortunately, I cannot make any final comments on it, as the retail copy will hopefully offer better image quality.
SOUND: The film does offer a reasonably good Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Surrounds kick in on occasion to discrete effects and instances of ambience, as well as mild reinforcement of the score. Audio quality was pleasing, as the score sounded bold and well-recorded, while dialogue came across as crisp and natural. This wasn't a demo-worthy sound mix, but it manages to get the job done.
EXTRAS: Oddly, given the scope of the film and all that could probably be said about the work that went into this production, all we get are two deleted scenes. No commentary, no documentaries.
Final Thoughts: With good performances and impressive visuals, "Australia" works as old-fashioned entertainment more often than not. Recommended.
The Film B