Australia is a deliberate throwback to David Lean-esque historical romantic epics, replete with classic Hollywood’s favorite bigoted trope: the mystical dark-skinned native. Baz Luhrmann’s bloated saga tells the cusp-of-WWII tale of prim-and-proper English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who journeys to Australia to visit her husband’s cattle ranch Faraway Downs, finds him dead, and winds up teaming with a stud named The Drover (Hugh Jackman) to keep the business alive by driving a herd of cattle across the Outback to nab a lucrative military contract. Sarah and The Drover are clichéd opposites who inevitably attract in ways so perfunctory one need not even bother reciting them, with their initially contentious, then passionate, rapport set against a widescreen backdrop of the gorgeously barren Aussie wastelands and – during the CG-heavy, sub-Pearl Harbor third act – bloody chaos of the Japanese army’s February 1942 attack on the northern port city of Darwin. Luhrmann’s trademark exaggerated flamboyance is glimpsed in Jackman’s introductory scene and a subsequent Loony Tunes-esque close-up of Kidman reacting to a kangaroo’s murder. Such moments, however, are astonishingly few and far between, as the story – which also involves a dastardly villain named Fletcher (David Wenham, lacking only a mustache to twirl) who wants to take control of Faraway Downs – otherwise dutifully goes through the sweeping-swoony motions.
The same can be said for both Kidman and Jackman, the former doing a rote cold-prig-warms-up routine and the latter stuck playing the gruff, emotionally reticent hunk (with the ripped physique to match). Were that all Australia amounted to, it would be a dull and predictable, but hardly appalling, entry in the wannabe-Gone with the Wind subgenre. But Luhrmann, intent on saying something oh-so-important, goes the extra mile and pivots the entire film around Sarah and The Drover’s surrogate-parent relationship with Nullah (Brandon Walters), a disenfranchised aboriginal boy whose scary-exotic witch doctor grandfather King George (David Gulpilil) is suspected of killing Sarah’s husband and who has mentored the boy in the ways of spiritual magic. And by spiritual magic, I mean in-harmony-with-nature superpowers that allow Nullah to communicate with distant people through song and, even more impressively, to raise his arms up like Merlin and somehow stop a stampeding herd of cattle before they knock him off a cliff. Between these numinous abilities and his habit of spouting platitudes in cutie-pie broken English, Nullah is an insufferable and offensively racist creation, and his presence – as well as repeated Wizard of Oz references employed because, well, Australia is known as Oz, and there’s some underlying theme about home and, um, Oz ends in z just like Baz? – inevitably, irrevocably reduces Australia to grade-A old-tyme claptrap.