Nicole Kidman travels far and away in Australia
If The African Queen and Indiana Jones had a baby with a chronic case of ADD and raised it Down Under, it would grow up to be Australia, Baz Luhrmann's overinflated romantic saga.
In previous films such as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann never let audience headaches get in the way of his pursuit of hyperbolic stylishness. Australia's first third unfolds like a cartoon of romance novels. On the eve of World War II, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from England to Australia to save her late husband's ranch, Faraway Downs, from a beef baron (Bryan Brown) and his vicious henchman (David Wenham). Sarah only finds allies among a rag-tag group of drunks, Aborigines and a rough-hewn cattle driver called "The Drover" (Hugh Jackman). (If this were an American film, he'd be a cowboy named "The Cowboy.")
Australia's shrill, spastic first act plays like this spring's eyesore Speed Racer movie, pitched to middle-aged ladies. Once the massive cattle drive starts, however, Luhrmann catches a breath and lets the story calm down and expand to fill the gorgeous vistas of his native land. Australia features an adorable supporting turn from young Brandon Walters as Nullah, a "half-caste" boy born of Wenham's character and an Aborigine mother. Luhrmann uses Nullah's travails to decry the racist aspects of Australian history in sharper terms than, say, Gone With the Wind ever did.
Eventually Kidman's and Jackman's charms emerge and the story intermittently clicks as an old-fashioned melodrama, culminating with star-crossed lovers and surrogate families trying to reunite during a Japanese attack. Even when Luhrmann's epic successfully sweeps and sprawls, it still has to contend with heavy-handed Aborigine mysticism and shameless tributes to The Wizard of Oz. As an Old School, Really Big Movie, Australia should fare well at the Oscars, even though it amounts to little more than a giant "Welcome to Australia!" postcard with super-saturated colors and historical footnotes written on the back.