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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008

Australian Epic

Nicole and Hugh’s home on the range

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Although separated by an ocean and multiple time zones, the Australian Outback bears remarkable resemblance to the American West. Both encompass mesas towering over rocky, dusty deserts shimmering like a mirage under unforgiving sunlight. Whip-snapping cowboys with guns at their side populated both regions, driving herds across rivers and plains on their way to market. Cattle barons exerted inordinate influence over territorial governments and in the brawling towns, fights easily erupted behind the swinging doors of the saloons. Most striking was the prevalence of racism. The shamanistic natives of the Outback and the West were hounded and humiliated and subjected to discrimination. Both Aborigines and Indians were disenfranchised in the land that had been theirs.

In Australia and the U.S. the problems didn't end during the pioneer era but continued long into the 20th century. Australia's active film industry periodically revisits the Outback's colorful history but few such movies stood as much chance of finding a wide American audience as Australia, the Baz Luhrmann epic starring down under heroes Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. The Australian-Hollywood super production ran millions of dollars over budget and runs nearly three hours.

It's a testament to Luhrmann's sense of pace that Australia never feels long. But pregnant plot lines suggest the Blu-Ray director's cut will clock in closer to five hours. The tone shifts repeatedly: at the onset Australia looks visually poetic and art house; for long stretches it's a post-modern send-up of the Hollywood western and historical genres spiked with a dose of magic realism; and then with the coming of World War Two Australia goes as serious as Gone With the Wind.

At the heart of Australia through all its permutations is the earnest story of a half-caste boy, Nullah (artlessly played by Brandon Walters). The adolescent son of a white rancher who embodies pure evil and grandson of an Aboriginal shaman whose powers occasionally save the day, Nullah has problems bigger than any crisis of identity. Australian law forcibly consigned half-castes to orphanages to separate them from Aboriginal culture. Nullah is always in jeopardy of being taken away.

Australia's box-office hopes have less to do with lessons in that country's history than in starring roles that promise an opposites-attract romance. Kidman plays Lady Sarah, a prissy yet determined English aristocrat who abruptly takes charge of the failing Australian cattle station, Faraway Downs, that she had never visited. Managing her cattle drive is the uncouth but handsome Drover, played by Jackman in bewhiskered, hard-drinking fashion. In Hollywood terms she is like the lady from back East bringing civilization to the frontier; he is the grizzled cowpoke contemptuous of city slickers.

It's certain that along the trail, Lady Sarah will lose some of her starchiness and Drover will gain a little polish. They will fall in love. Because those characters are already so familiar, sight unseen, Luhrmann feels licensed to play up the post-modern irony and self-aware humor. Hollywood has made western comedies but Luhrmann finds amusement in the idea of making a western-style comedy in the Outback. For much of the movie Kidman and Jackman are arch to the point of parody, their deliberately stereotypical characters often playing their scenes against hyper-real candy-colored computer-generated backdrops as they drive their herd to the port of Darwin in the teeth of fiendish opposition from a rival cattle baron determined to monopolize the beef trade.

Elsewhere, the nudging and pointing ceases and the story turns into an epic wartime romance with a bad conscience about Australian bigotry against its natives. Luhrmann has engineered a hybrid movie that probably won't rise to the unforgettable level of epics such as Dr. Zhivago and Gone With the Wind but is an engaging enough pastime for three hours. Australia is colorful to look at and the stars shine bright.
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