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Movie Review: Australia

'Australia' is good-looking but stale and overlong
Genres: Romance, Thriller, Action
Running Time: 165 min
Release Date: 2008-11-26
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By "Lawrence Toppman (rates on a 4-star scale)"
The Charlotte Observer

“Australia” really should have been made 60 years ago. It would have been timelier, with its tale of life in the remote north of that country during World War II. The juicy overacting, stereotypes and dramatic exaggerations would have been more in keeping with the style of the Golden Age of Hollywood. And I would not yet have been born, so I could have lived a full cinematic life without seeing it.

Whatever you think of Baz Luhrmann's first three features, every one re-examined a genre. “Strictly Ballroom” teased dance movie conventions while still giving us the uplifting ending we wanted. “Romeo + Juliet” moved the old tale to Florida and made us feel Shakespeare's violent passions anew. “Moulin Rouge” set the camera and our heads awhirl in a Paris filled with giddy artists singing modern pop songs.

Yet “Australia” is an unbroken string of clichés. Director Luhrmann does the obvious at every turn, making each character an archetype and every action a crowd-pleasing, grandiosely predictable moment. Its excruciating length and attack on the heroes' homeland recall Michael Bay's similarly bloated “Pearl Harbor”: Both are expressions of patriotism mixed with romance and are as huge, handsome and hollow as the bass drum in John Philip Sousa's marching band.

At least the characters in “Pearl Harbor” had names. Hugh Jackman dominates “Australia” as The Drover, a cattle wrangler of legendary skill wearing shirts of legendary tightness. (Or, at times, not wearing them.) He has a meet-cute with Lady Sarah (Nicole Kidman), a British widow who has come to Australia to sell her late husband's cattle ranch to pay debts back in England.

“I wouldn't have it on with you if you were the only tart in Australia!” he roars, which means their first kiss can hardly be far away. (We know he's a good guy, because he's the only non-racist white in the region. He married a native woman, who conveniently died and left him unencumbered.)

The movie breaks neatly into halves of approximately feature length. In the first part, Sarah and Drover defend her ranch, racing unscrupulous King Carney (Bryan Brown) to the port of Darwin to sell beef to the Australian army. In the second half, their perennial nemesis – a snake named Fletcher (David Wenham), who's known to have killed her husband in an unprovable way – persecutes them until the Japanese planes fly overhead.

The lone element of interest in either half, other than Jackman's pecs and Kidman's “I'm a bony dominatrix but some guys like that” manner, are the glimpses of aboriginal life.

A mixed-race boy named Nullah (appealing Brandon Walters), mocked by whites as a “creamy,” attaches himself to Sarah and Drover as a surrogate son. Yet he's always aware of the call of the land, and we're told about 30 times that he will have to go “walkabout” with his black grandfather (David Gulpilil, who has been in every significant movie with an aboriginal character for the last 30 years and has more charisma than any other adult here).

The language is laughable. “Curse you, little creamy!” snarls Fletcher, forgetting to twirl his mustache. When Sarah is separated from Nullah, she vows, “I will come and find you – whatever it takes, whatever happens. We will be together again! I will come! I will come!” Music ploddingly underscores the panoramic emotions with infinite repetitions of “Sheep May Safely Graze” and “Over the Rainbow,” the latter played soulfully on a blood-stained harmonica.

What need is there for this picture outside the country for which it's named? Haven't we seen all these episodes a dozen times? In fact, there's already an Oscar-winning movie about a naive white woman who travels to the South Seas during World War II, meets a strong and silent foreigner who was married to a brown-skinned wife, then learns to love mixed-race kids. It's called “South Pacific,” and I would sooner see a remake of it by Woody Allen than sit through this unenchanted evening again.

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11/25/2008 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman (rates on a 4-star scale)

“Australia” really should have been made 60 years ago. It would have been timelier, with its tale of life in the remote north of that country during World War II.

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