Australia bears all the hallmarks of an old Hollywood epic: sappy romance, horrifying bombing scenes, exotic culture, campy comedy, beautiful panoramas, evil villains and a majestic musical score. It's all grand and nostalgic. So then why is the movie such a disappointment?
For one thing, it's way too long. I recently heard an interview with L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan, who quipped that Australia was one of the few movies to feature its own sequel within its running time. It's true - the movie literally ends, with everything tidily resolved, before starting all over again. But it's not that having two movies in one is Australia's problem. It's that both of the movies are bad, which makes it a doubly long chore to sit through.
Unfortunately, Australia bears little of the experimental fun of Baz Luhrmann's last two films, the acclaimed Moulin Rouge! and the underrated Romeo + Juliet. Like most people, I enjoyed those for their wild spirits, not for their conventional character, which makes you wonder why Luhrmann decided on telling a story from his native land with such by-the-book blandness. Somewhere in Australia (and Australia) is an interesting story, but it's obscured by all kinds of unnecessary details (who really cares about the technicalities of a real estate battle in the Outback?).
I'd have liked to learn more about Aboriginal culture, for example, which hasn't been touched on film since 2002's unforgettable Rabbit-Proof Fence (which also starred David Gulpilil, who plays King George here). In Australia, we get whiffs of the controversy and a cute face to admire (newcomer Brandon Walters, who was evidently directed by Luhrmann to channel Jar-Jar Binks), but the discussions are hardly thought-provoking, mostly because you realize everything is meant to revolve around the romance between Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, both native Australians who agreed to star without having read the screenplay. The end result is that I wasn't moved by either the love story or the cultural story, and I was rolling my eyes much more than I was my wiping tears away from them.
It's not that there aren't touching moments, but they're mostly accidental and even then they can be attributed to honest acting more than honest writing. Several deaths are truly tragic, and the backdrop of war behind everything eventually adds a somber mood (it's almost welcome by that point). But everytime you feel a touch of emotion coming on there's a silly joke to break up the mood or an impressive visual (and there are some very beautiful shots) to distract you from your own feelings.
Australia presents us with a veritable smorgasbord of cinematic delights and plot tangents, and it's impossible not to feel uncomfortably full after consuming all of them. You can't push the plate away because it just keeps piling up with more, like some nightmarish buffet for the senses (it's fitting that the film was released at Thanksgiving). The same could probably be said for Moulin Rouge!, but as showy and theatrical as that was, there was something more... real about it. Additionally, it had a great soundtrack compared to Australia, which is almost entirely centered around "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Hugh Jackman asks his droving buddy not to whistle the tune near the end of the movie because it reminds him of a happier time in his life. I felt the same way, actually, and was relieved when he mercifully stopped whistling, partly because I'd grown tired of the song, but mostly because it reminded me of a better movie - one that I knew I'd rather be watching.
Writing - 7
Acting - 9
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 6
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5
Total: 39/50= 78% = C+