Australia (2008)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley in Australia

Australia is flamboyant director Baz Luhrmann's tribute to his homeland, a huge, sweeping saga as vast and rugged and unbound and beautiful as the country it celebrates. Forget the glitz and glamour of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge and prepare yourself for a romantic adventure that weaves the personal and the political into an epic canvas of a movie that makes Titanic look unambitious.

Hugh Jackman as the Drover in Australia

The lovely Hugh Jackman plays a character who so embodies the lean, muscle-bound, no-nonsense, beer drinking, pub brawling stereotypical Aussie male that he doesn't even get a name, but is simply referred to as the Drover. Opposite him is Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, over-acting again, but in a very charming way), a prissy yet fearlessly determined young woman who storms across the seas to England to drag her husband back from his cattle station, Faraway Downs. Problem is, when she finally arrives, her husband is dead, murdered by the evil henchman of local cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), as part of his campaign to exert a stranglehold over the beef trade in the Northern Territory.

But Lady Ashley is not a woman to give up without a fight, so the first half of the film centres round the efforts of the motley crew who live and work on Faraway Downs to herd the station's 'cheeky bulls' across the cracked barren desert lands to Darwin, led by the Drover. And, of course, it isn't long before our dauntless heroine falls in equal measures for the rugged charms of the outback landscape, the Drover and a mysterious mixed-raced boy called Nullah (a marvellous performance form new-comer Brandon Walters).

Featuring breathtaking backdrops and some really nail-bitingly exciting action (watch out for the cliff-top stampede – awesome) this part of the film is pretty much complete in itself. But the story ain't over yet, and, as the darkness of World War Two draws ever closer to Australia's northern shores, things begin to fall apart in the new-found paradise created by Sarah at Faraway Downs.

Brandon Walters as Nullah in Australia

Even her imperious English charms can't keep the wild and restless Drover with her forever, and as he rides off into the sunset, Nullah is snatched by the police and banished to Mission Island, where half-Aboriginal 'creamy' children are sent to have 'the black bred out of them' – and which just happens to be right in the path of attacking Japanese airforce. Oh, and then we have Carney's sidekick Neil Fletcher (a superb bit of scenery chewing from Lord of the Rings star David Wenham), who's intent on getting his revenge for the cattle fiasco, ensuring the stage is set for a bombastic finale of rugged heroics, desperate endeavours and unashamedly slushy bits.

True, the clichés are piled fairly high and, interestingly for a film that's all about bigging up the Land Down Under, allusions to classic Hollywood movies abound: the stagey sets and warm Technicolor orange tones are pure Gone With The Wind, while The Wizard of Oz becomes an over-arching meta-story to explain the coming together of unlikely comrades, the power of song and the fact that there really is 'no place like home'.

These references to Americana could be seen to underline the paucity of white tradition in Australia (the country's colonial history has, after all, almost all been caught on camera) when compared to the rich, ancient traditions of the Aborigines. However, cunningly, Luhrmann intertwines the Wizard of Oz themes of wishing on stars and travelling over the rainbow with native beliefs in the Dreaming and Songlines to create a powerful and moving mythology that embraces both Western and Aboriginal cultures and binds together Sarah, the Drover and Nullah with love.

At around three hours, this is not a movie for the restless, but if you can sit that long without checking your mobile (clearly a challenge for many members of the audience last night) then Australia is an unmissable cinematic experience. And it's nice to see all those Aussie actors getting to talk Australian for a change. Crikey…

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