If you're making a movie entitled "Australia", you had better get it right, no? And I thought Baz Luhrmann actually hit it quite squarely on the head with his Gone with the Wind-ish sprawling epic set in the Australian outback and around the time when the Japanese Imperial Army rained bombs over the Northern Territories, with a sprinkling of his keen eye for visual flair especially in the first few minutes where he had to set the stage for everything else to happen.
Initially I was quite taken aback by its opening inter-title, and actually wondered what we could be in for. It's a warning of sorts, though much of it would be lost in translation outside Australia. In this film Luhrmann has boldly tackled the issue of discrimination head on, especially the attitude taken towards the Aboriginals and the plights of their children - the Stolen Generation, and crafted through this film, the natives who were quite heroic and self-sacrificial, putting bad light at those who deem themselves cultured, giving them really disgusting behavioural traits who run at the first signs of trouble.
The similarities with Gone with the Wind cannot be denied. Call it inspired by, a homage to, of what have yous, there's a huge range called Faraway Downs where a Miss Scarlett O'Hara equivalent, proud English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) inherited upon arrival due to the death of her husband, and got caught up in a devilish plot to bankrupt her and take over her property, no thanks to beef monopolist King Carney (Bryan Brown) and chief henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, of Faramir fame from Lord of the RingS, who is creepily evil here). In comes saviour and romantic, roguish-looking hero Drover (Hugh Jackman), whose name is derived from his occupation, who's quite the free spirit and actually does give a damn.
The story's told in two distinct acts, The first focused a whole lot on cattle driving, where Sarah Ashley and Drover have to assemble a rag-tag team of ranchers from their household to drive 1500 heads of cattle all the way from their ranch to Darwin in order to make some dough to stave off bankruptcy and battle everything that's evil put in their way, from man-made disasters to Mother Nature. And this is where the action's quite exhilirating, which I put on par with Kevin Costner's buffalo hunt in Dances with Wolves.
The second arc focused more squarely on the romance between the two leads, as told through the eyes of the little boy Nuallah, whom people insult as "creamy" (half-white, half-aboriginal). His condition is such that children of his nature get sent packing away to a remote island by missionaries to "re-educate" them, and Sarah Ashley, having taken a liking to the boy, fights hard to keep her under her wing. They form a family nucleus of sorts, given that we slowly realize that the boy could probably be what they had both lost or could never attain, and is that social glue that keeps their pseudo-family dynamics in order.
Casting is no-brainer as well, because you're likely to put together the biggest Hollywood stars (who are Australians naturally) in this movie to pull fans in, and watch them breathe life into their characters. If not for The Dark Knight, we'd probably see the late Heath Ledger involved as well. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman shared perfect chemistry together, transforming loathe to love through the course of the film. More obvious changes were physical of course, where Sarah Ashley had her pasty white skin from her idyllic days in England slowly baked by the sun into a healthy tanned glow, while you can hear the audible gasps from female audiences when they see Hugh clean clean shaven after spending much time hiding his sexiest man alive fame behind a beard.
The rest of the ensemble supporting cast also pulled their weight together, and even Hong Kong actor Yuen Wah had a bit part playing the non-English speaking kitchen help. What I thought was a romantic subplot played down and probably written out or edited to the cutting room floor, was that between the Australian Captain Dutton (Ben Mendelsohn) who had clearly taken a liking for Sarah Ashley, but probably kept for deleted scenes in the DVD release, if shot at all. There was that glint in the eye each time they both come together on screen, but it became more like a whatever-happens-off-screen-stays-off-screen relationship.
Some might balk at the length of the film as I did prior to watching the film, but you'll hardly notice the run time once you get immersed into the spectacle of the film with its lush cinematography, and even pace. Elton John contributed to the score as well, and The Drover's Ballad could be a shoo-in for Academy nomination I think. If there's a gripe, I felt that Luhrmann did a Michael Bay in his battle sequences in the second act which Bay would probably be proud of, but it was a vastly one-sided affair with the Zero bombers holding their advantage from a surprise attack.
Australia works on many fronts, and while it might not be a great movie, it certainly is a good one, with wonderful visuals, sets and all round chemistry between its cast. I'm not sure how there are those who can slam this earnest effort, but for Luhrmann fans, you're in for a treat with his film, with the romance maestro doing what he does best for his characters, making them fall in love under extraordinary circumstances.