The last time Baz Luhrmann sat in the director’s chair he was finishing his Red Curtain Trilogy consisting of “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet,” and “Moulin Rouge!.”
Even Luhrmann himself wasn’t sure what he’d do next. He eventually set his sights on “Australia,” an epic romance/drama set in the Aussie outback just before World War II.
Luhrmann must have spent his hiatus revisiting the classics that gave a face to the epic genre. “Australia” is the bastard child of a love affair between “Gone With The Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”; both of which came out in 1939, the same year in which “Australia” is set.
The difference is that Scarlett O’Hara has been replaced by Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat who inherits a ranch in Darwin, Australia. “The Wizard of Oz” shows its influence in a more overt, cringe-worthy fashion.
Lady Ashley discovers that she is part of a takeover plot by King Carney, the monopolistic mastermind behind Carney Cattle. She hires the services of the Drover (Hugh Jackman) to move her cattle from her ranch, Faraway Downs, across the outback to Darwin before Carney can steal them. Of course, “Australia” devolves into much more.
Throw in a subplot involving an Aborigine child named Nullah (Brandon Walters) serving as surrogate child to the soon-to-be lovers, a Carney henchman by the name of Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) with devious intentions of his own and the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942 and you have the full, and perhaps overblown, picture.
“Australia” is by far Luhrman’s most ambitious film yet, and that’s part of the problem. Even after completing the massive Red Curtain Trilogy that took over a decade to complete, Luhrmann can’t quite handle a film of this size and scope. But when “Australia” does work, it works really well.
Sprawling shots of the Australian landscape serve as the perfect backdrop for the Drover and Lady Ashley’s romance to unfold. Kidman and Jackman are irresistible as they don the roles of a new age Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’ Hara to near perfection.
At times Luhrmann shows the gravitas needed to take on a film of this scale by providing a lush background and an astute focus when the story is nothing more than an exhilarating crusade across the outback with two destined-to-be lovers. But when the crusade ends, “Australia” becomes too big and too intricate for it’s own good.
Capturing the spirit of “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” or nearly every David Lean film required Luhrmann to hold back on the visual panache he trademarked in earlier works. But he can’t completely hold back. When he reverts, Luhrmann takes you out of the grandiose drama he so desperately wants you to stay in.