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Australia Breathtaking on Big Screen

Observer Scene | Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The title, “Australia,” is about as vague as they come, and yet it’s painstakingly difficult to come up with an apt title for this epic film.

Baz Luhrmann’s direction is famous for the over the top “Moulin Rouge!” with its glittery depictions and musical numbers. But “Australia” is memorable in quite a different way. Losing his typically gaudy approach, “Australia” takes on the daunting task of cinematically addressing a marathon love story, racism, the plight of the aborigines, robber barons of Australian cattle herding and World War II. That’s an awful lot of ground to cover, even within a 165 minute running time.

But with the breathtaking backdrop of the Australian outback, somehow the multitude of subject matters and the myriad of characters each get their due. This is a film that you definitely get your money’s worth for, both in terms of its entertainment value and its atypical length.

“Australia” follows Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a snooty British aristocrat who journeys to the outback to investigate her husband’s suspicious cattle business, which she suspects to be a cover for his extramarital affairs. Her guide to Australia is Drover (Hugh Jackman), an uncouth cattle herder, who’s more than rough around the edges.

Upon reaching the ranch, Far-Away Downs, Sarah finds her husband murdered, allegedly by an aboriginal voodoo king, and her business in shambles. Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-aborigine, half-white boy, lives on the ranch with his mother, a worker on the farm. He reveals to Sarah that Fletcher, the ranch’s manager, is ruining the business intentionally to help Carne, the ranch’s rival cattle business.

Upon firing the underhanded Fletcher, Sarah, Drover, and Nullah become a sort of platonic family. Together, they lead an epic cattle drive across the outback to restore Far-Away Downs to its full glory. And of course, along the way they find love, hope, and adventure. Their story continues after their hefty droving, following their “family” through the trials and tribulations of shady cattle business dealings and WWII.

Full of twists and turns, tragedy and success, the story is almost as expansive as its location. Most analogous to “Gone with the Wind,” “Australia” manages to cover tons of territory, while still following a core cast. The film could have used a bit more editing; in “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” fashion, there were about three endings to the story.

Overall the story remains controlled. The characters remain consistent throughout, while not being static. Additionally, Luhrmann creates a uniformity and cohesiveness with his distinctive artistic touch that utilizes themes of love, music, and social elitism.

There was little to complain about concerning the casting. Appropriately, all the cast members, aborigine and white alike, are native Australians. Headlining superstars, Kidman and Jackman, fill the lead roles well, though there is nothing exceptional in their portrayals of Sarah and Drover. In fact, these complex, compelling characters would have been just as good in anyone else’s hands. Basically, Kidman and Jackman brought little to the roles outside of their star power. The truly great performance came from new comer, Brandon Walters. His portrayal of Nullah was simple and brilliantly genuine. His character and his talent are the heart and soul of the film.

While the story is detailed and lengthy, it is not difficult to follow. It’s easy to become emotionally attached to the characters, and this is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the film. Additionally, the amazing scenery and cinematography contribute to create a delightful work. Though viewers should be forewarned of the film’s length, it’s an appealing story that’s vividly brought to life. It’s an enjoyable epic that’s worth every penny to see on the big screen.

Contact Jess Shaffer at jshaffe1@nd.edu.