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425.kidman.jackman.australia.082808Australia, the new film from Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann is big. It’s an epic with an ambitious running time of 165 minutes that covers a lot of ground; it’s part romance, part western, part thriller, part war drama and part civil rights story. Luhrmann has superimposed the best bits of The African Queen, Gone with the Wind and Giant against the majestic backdrop of the Australian Outback.

Set in World War II era Australia the story begins when plucky English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) impulsively decides to leave her pampered life in the UK to travel to Australia to check up on her husband who has been managing a large cattle ranch deep in the Outback. What was planned as a quick trip soon changes into a life altering journey as she finds she is a widow about to inherit a failing cattle business on a million acre ranch. With the help of Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rough-and-tumble Outback cowboy, she drives 1,500 head of cattle across the brutal Outback landscape to the trading town of Darwin. That would be enough story for most movies, but not an ambitious one like Australia. Once in Darwin Sarah and Drover must contend with their deepening feelings for one another, racism, their responsibility for a young farm worker of mixed race—a “creamy” the locals call him—named Nullah (Brandon Walters) and on top of it all, World War II.

It takes a big movie to introduce a wild bombing scene, complete with aerial acrobatics, in the last hour and not have it overshadow what has come before. When the Japanese bomb the town of Darwin Luhrmann’s camera dances through the sequence and it’s a show stopper but it doesn’t bring the movie to a halt because Luhrmann has carefully set up the story to be about the people and their relationships rather than the bombast of the bigger set pieces.

As I said, it’s big, but the intimate aspects of the story shine through—that’s Sarah Ashley’s feelings for both Drover and Nullah, her unofficially adopted son; Drover’s realization that he can’t live in the past and Nullah’s need to reconcile his heritage with his new life are the focus of the story. The rest is set dressing.

Kidman does a nice job transforming her character from prissy English aristocrat to plucky Australian cowgirl, and actually earns a few laughs along the way. She’s more naturally funny here than she ever has been in the alleged comedies she’s made in the past. Jackman, who has clearly been spending some time in the gym, plays a convincing cowboy. The most magnetic performance comes from newcomer Brandon Walters as Nullah. It’s a tricky role, one that requires the young actor to portray a mix of realism and the mysticism so crucial to his Aborigine culture.

It’s not all sunshine and light however. Nullah’s Jar Jar Binks-esque patois grates after a while and sparks don’t exactly fly between the two leads but overall Australia is a stylish film with old-fashioned storytelling that should lend itself to multiple viewings. (Also note: No dingos were harmed in the making of this motion picture.)

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