Who says they don't make 'em like they used to? Australia, which stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as the Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler of the Land Down Under, is a throwback to the glorious epics of yesteryear, when movies were as big as the whole outdoors. And the outdoors, in this case, is one of the most remarkable landscapes in the world - sky-high mesas, bottomless gorges, sun-baked plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. If that reminds you of the American West, it's supposed to. Set in the northwestern region of Kimberley, which John Ford would have drooled over, Australia isn't just about an English aristocrat who tries to save her million-acre ranch from a cattle baron (with a little help from a lonesome cowboy), it's about a sprawling continent whose tortured history rivals our own, especially when it comes to that old bugaboo, race.
Meet Nulla (Brandon Walter), a mixed-race boy who seems to have inherited some magical powers from the aboriginal side of his family. Australia is narrated by Nulla, who speaks in a poetically broken English, and through his eyes and ears the movie takes on the once-upon-a-time vibe of a children's story. As a "half-caste," Nulla is subject to a law designed to remove mixed-race children from their families and place them in the hands of the Catholic Church, a national tragedy now known as the Stolen Generations. And he might indeed have been taken away if not for the arrival of Sarah Ashley, his soon-to-be guardian angel and perhaps one of the whitest women in the world. Dressed as if for afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace, Kidman seems to get a real kick out of playing the proverbial fish out of water. Obviously, Lady Ashley is due for a comeuppance, and who better to deliver it than the Drover?
That would be Jackman, who looks far too dreamy to play a guy who'd prefer to sleep out under the stars, with the dingoes. But he and Kidman have no trouble generating chemistry with the old uppity-woman, down-to-earth-guy gambit. (Think Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.) Though still not seeing eye-to-eye on things, these two set off on a cattle drive that John Wayne would have demurely passed on, including a death-defying trek across the aptly named Never-Never - land so hot and dry the movie finally has to avert its gaze. Do they make it? Well, let's just say no cattle drive is complete without a stampede, and this one provides a real challenge for Lady Ashley's fox-hunting skills. An hour and a half in, we've reached our first major climax, but don't expect an intermission.
Instead, hold on to your hats (and your bladders), because Australia is about to go from a Western to a war film. Set in the late 1930s, when Japan was spreading its wings over that whole part of the world, the movie hits its burning-of-Atlanta stride with the bombing of the provincial capital, Darwin - Australia's own Pearl Harbor Day. The three protagonists, a family of sorts, have been separated, and the movie becomes about finding their way back home. Australia feels a little like two movies in one, and you could leave after the first one without feeling like you'd been cheated. But epics take time, and director Baz Luhrmann has a lot more in store for us. This was the guy behind Moulin Rouge, which may have been the most frenetic musical of all time (those with pacemakers weren't allowed to see it), but I'm happy to report that he's settled down a bit, gone a little conventional, kept the story front and center.
Still, he's a true visionary, and the camera often swoops and swirls like a bird in flight. Australia is infused with the aboriginal sense of Dreaming, in which the past literally comes to life in the present via the surrounding landscape. Every rock, every tree has its own meaning, its own power. And Luhrmann doesn't pass up many opportunities to show us that meaning, that power. He's also a music nut, as we learned, ad nauseam, in Moulin Rouge. Here, he uses "Over the Rainbow" as a musical refrain, an evocation of the longing we have for a land beyond this one, a land called Oz. It remains to be seen whether the American movie-going public will turn over its hard-earned cash for an epic film about Australia. (Warning: The accents can get a little thick.) But if you're looking for a movie that sweeps you off your feet and leaves you gone with the wind, you may want to head off to the Outback.