British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) travels to Australia to get her wayward husband to sell his failing cattle farm and raise some much-needed funds back home. Upon arrival, she discovers that he has been murdered, apparently by a local Aborigine, and that cattle are being stolen by station manager Fletcher (Wenham) so that ‘King’ Carney (Brown) will have a monopoly on the cattle in the Darwin area. Rather taken by local half-caste boy Nullah (Walters), she hires Drover (Jackman) to live up to his name and get the cattle to Darwin so she can sell them and save the farm.
Naming a film after a country is always likely to be a hiding to nothing. Can a movie really encapsulate an entire country, its history, its geography, its society? Surely even someone as accomplished as Baz Luhrmann wouldn’t imagine that were possible? So how does it fare?
On its cinematic release, critics were divided while the public showed its appreciation by making this the second highest grossing Australian film of all time (behind Crocodile Dundee, fact fans). In terms of spectacle alone there is no doubt that this is a wonderful show. The sweeping vistas of the Northern Territory have rarely looked so colourful and sumptuous and while he has an amazing canvas to play with, you can’t help but admire the imaginative ways in which Luhrmann presents his homeland. Visually, Australia the film is just stunning and looks truly beautiful on Blu-ray.
There’s a recurring theme involving The Wizard of Oz (do you see what he did there?) and one of the funniest scenes has Nicole Kidman half singing ‘Over the Rainbow’. While this film is nowhere near as magical as the 1939 classic, it does have a certain charm and Kidman and Jackman are well cast and well matched as the romantic leads. Brandon Walters also shines as Nullah while Wenham is suitably malicious as the increasingly bitter Fletcher.
Despite its undoubted good looks, the film is a bit ragged, veering wildly from camp comedy to melodrama. It’s also too long, although perhaps this is inevitable when you’re trying to cover as much ground as Luhrmann clearly wants to. Although this is obviously a fantasy, there is a feeling that it’s also trying to be something of an apology for the country’s treatment of the indigenous people and it’s debatable how successful it is in that regard. But as a piece of pure entertainment, and especially from an aesthetic perspective, Australia delivers, albeit in a predictable epic wartime love story kind of way.
SECOND OPINION | Stuart O'Connor * I love Australia – the country, I mean. It's the place of my birth. It's the country in which I grew up, and began my career. And even though I've been living in England for the past few years, in the words of Peter Allen: I still call Australia home. So imagine my horror and dismay when the credits rolled on this awful monstrosity of a film from the normally reliable Baz Luhrmann. Where do I start to describe just how awful this film is? I sat there, for almost three hours, in sheer embarrassment at what my fellow countryman was inflicting upon the world. I've always liked Luhrmann's films – hey, I've seen Moulin Rouge half a dozen times – but Australia is just a cliched, cringeworthy mess.
• Australia at IMDb