- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Baz Luhrmann was putting the final touches on “Australia” right up to the wire. Just days before its Sydney premiere this month, the director was still editing the film, a labor of love he had been working on for four years.

Maybe he just couldn’t decide what kind of film he wanted to make. Was “Australia” a campy comedy? A lush period epic? A ripping adventure yarn? A coming-of-age tale with political overtones?

It seems he never decided, and the result is a comely but chaotic piece of work. It changes tone so often it’s hard for the audience to stay engaged through the overly long running time of two hours and 35 minutes.

The film opens in September 1939 as Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) undertakes a journey from England to Australia in the hope of bringing home her wayward husband. She wants to sell the cattle station to which he’s devoting his time, and she doesn’t care much about the price.

She’s driven from Darwin to Faraway Downs, as the station is called, by the Drover (Hugh Jackman). The man, whose moniker refers to his job driving cattle, is a prime specimen of outback rough. Lady Ashley would like to be rid of him, but she needs the man. When she arrives at Faraway Downs, she discovers her husband has been murdered and the station run into the ground by the corrupt manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham).

She didn’t care how much she could get for the ranch before. Now that she knows Fletcher has been sending her cattle to the station of local bigwig King Carney (Bryan Brown), she changes her tune. She gets on a horse and becomes part of a ragtag cattle-driving crew that includes a young half-caste (Brandon Walters) constantly in danger of being taken by the authorities to a mission that aims to “breed the black” out of Aborigine children.

The film starts out as one of Mr. Luhrmann’s typically over-the-top, stylized works. (He’s best-known for the musical extravaganza “Moulin Rouge!”) The tone and color here are those of a comic book. In the first 20 minutes, the cliches tumble out. “I will have you know I’m as capable as any man,” the haughty Lady Ashley tells the Drover, while later he declares, “I wouldn’t have it on with you if you were the only tart left in Australia.” Sparks will fly soon - of course. The music, by David Hirschfelder, is often the same combination of derivative and over-the-top.

The film’s best portion comes toward the end, when Darwin is bombed and the melodrama gives way to pure drama. The film is always rather nice to look at, with plenty of sweeping views of the Australian countryside.

Miss Kidman looks ravishing in Oscar winner Catherine Martin’s handsome costumes. Her performance is good, too, although she relies too much on a repeated open-mouthed look meant to convey a gamut of emotions from surprise to dread.

Mr. Jackman was just named the sexiest man alive by People magazine, and this film offers plenty of supporting evidence. He handles the film’s comedy, romance and poignancy with equal aplomb. He’s aided by a very promising young find in Mr. Walters, who more than holds his own. Mr. Wenham could offer Mr. Jackman competition for that People accolade - he’s almost too good to be such a caricatured villain.

Mr. Luhrmann might simply have tried to do too much with a film he grandly titled after the country of his birth. “Australia” certainly showcases the beauty to be found Down Under, but if you want a deep look at its troubled recent history, you’ll have to go somewhere else.

TITLE: “Australia”

RATING: PG-13 (Some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language)

CREDITS: Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Mr. Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan from a story by Mr. Luhrmann.

RUNNING TIME: 155 minutes

WEB SITE: australiamovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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