Australia is the kind of grand movie romance that defined classic Hollywood. It's got all the important ingredients: A pair of movie stars, exotic locales, and a heaping helping of melodrama. In the capable hands of Aussie director Baz Luhrmann, who knows a thing or two about movie love stories (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), Australia had 'classic' written all over it. Maybe with expectations that high, Australia was bound to disappoint. In any case, Australia is certainly not all it can be.
Much like Gone With the Wind, Titanic, or Out of Africa, Australia is a romantic epic that tells the story of an upperclass woman who falls for a dashing rogue. And that's not where the story similarities stop. Australia also takes place in a unique natural landscape and it's set against an important historical event. Australia is not just similar in story construction to these Hollywood classics, it is a direct variation on them. I don't hold that against Australia. The formula obviously works, and if you can put a worthwhile spin on it, I'm all in. Australia has a distinct Aussie flavor, and it's commentary on Australia's Stolen Generation is something we haven't seen in mainstream Hollywood. The cast is made up of just about every major Australian actor working, with welcome turns by David Wenham, Bill Hunter and Ray Barrett to highlight a few . Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star, and they are exactly what they need to be. Kidman does her thing as the uptight English outsider, and Jackman was born to play the bushman with a heart of gold. There is almost nothing I can say against the structure of Australia. This exact story has been done before, and done very well.
As much as I hate to admit it, because I really like him as a filmmaker, Australia's problems start and end with Luhrmann. I suppose he must have had a passion for telling this story. He is Australian, and I'm sure he felt an obligation to do justice to the country's history, specifically the Stolen Generation, but you can't really see that passion on the screen. This is a sloppy piece of work. For starters, Luhrmann never quite finds the right tone for the story. The introductory scenes are kind of playful and more than a little humorous, but as the film moves along, the melodrama begins to take hold. It gives the film a jittery back and forth feeling, as if competing ideas of what type of movie this should be were all thrown in together, elbowing each other for space.
The bigger blunder from Luhrmann is the look of the movie. The Australian Outback is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It doesn't take much to translate that beauty to the screen. And while there are, by sheer volume, plenty of breathtaking vistas on display in Australia, there are far too many ugly ones. Luhrmann relies heavily on sound stages and CGI backgrounds. Digital enhancement is, of course, not a dealbreaker in itself, but the CGI here is so bad, pervasive, and needless that it almost does spoil the rest of the film. There is absolutely no need for this much CGI in a romantic Hollywood epic, especially CGI that looks like a PlayStation 2 game. There is a long, pivotal, cattle driving scene in the middle of the film, and I didn't believe that environment for one second. This is a production that is calling out for old-fashioned filmmaking, and Luhrmann it seems, doesn't have that in him. At least not fully. He tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to balancing the art-house elements he's famous for and the traditional elements the material calls for. The result is a movie that is not artsy enough to separate itself from its obvious inspirations, And not traditional enough to stand alongside them.
This is a movie stuck in, well, No Man's Land. Luhrmann wants Australia to be a grounded drama about Australian history but he also wants a magic realism tale about an aboriginal twilight. It is not impossible to do both, but Luhrmann only gives half his attention to each. I'm being hard on Australia only because I know it could have been great. The final product is not a bad movie. There is a surplus of ambition and conviction in both leading actors, Kidman and Jackman, and in Luhrmann as the director. This is a solid tale with enough admirable craftsmanship to get a pass from me, but given its potential, Australia is a major disappointment.