Director Baz Luhrmann is the Wizard of ‘Aus’

Jane Pojawa

Somewhere, over the rainbow, is a land called Australia, a fact not lost on Baz Luhrmann’s fans. Luhrmann, a director best known for the fabled “red curtain trilogy” of “Simply Ballroom,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge,” has worked his trademark theatrical style on this latest movie set in Darwin at the onset of World War II.

Lady Sarah Astor (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat with a fondness for horses and tight tailored suits, is determined to bring her wayward husband back to England and sell their cattle station, Faraway Downs. Once in Australia, she finds that circumstances are much different than she expected. Her husband has been killed and the prime suspect is an Aboriginal known as King George (David Gulpilil).

The cattle station is in ruins, held together by a staff that remains only because they have no place else to go. And the buzzards are circling. “King” Carney (Bryan Brown) has a virtual lock on the cattle trade in the Northern Territories and needs only to acquire Faraway Downs to complete his empire. Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), the station manager, has acquisition plans of his own.

Thrown into the mix is Nullah (Brandon Walters), an adorable and precocious child of mixed Caucasian-Aboriginal ancestry, who wants nothing more than to avoid relocation to a government orphanage, and a drover (Hugh Jackman) who has been hired to drive the Faraway Downs herd to Darwin, where the war effort is gathering momentum. What’s an aristocratic equestrienne to do?

Suffice to say, she does not sell the farm and go home. Kidman’s feisty and determined heroine joins forces with the drover and off they go to drive 1,500 head of cattle to the docks in Darwin. And that’s where part one ends.

In a way, “Australia” is like watching two movies, woven together with some very engaging characters and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the theme from the “Wizard of Oz.” There’s no place like home – and “home” is wherever one’s heart may be. “I’ll sing you to me, Mrs. Boss” is Nullah’s refrain, and we desperately hope that, against all odds, he will. Even when he has been taken to a mission school, his grandfather is in jail and the Japanese are bombing the hell out of Darwin.

Early in the film, Lady Sarah, insisting that she has no nurturing skills, attempts to comfort young Nullah with a spontaneous summary of the Wizard of Oz. Her retelling and attempt at singing “Over the Rainbow” are humorous: a counterpoint to the smoothly polished medleys of “Moulin Rouge,” her 2001 collaboration with Luhrmann. Sarah’s ineptitude is completely lost on Nullah, who sees some immediate similarities between his culture; the Land of Aus(tralia) with the Land of Oz. He is training to be a wizard like his grandfather, King George, and of course “the rainbow” could only be referring to the rainbow serpent of Aboriginal creation mythology. “Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true,” is a prophecy about the Dreamtime, and the Songlines that describe the interconnectedness of all aspects of the Australian landscape resonate with the imagination of this boy: a so-called half-caste, a child of both cultures.

Perhaps the most surprising performance in “Australia” is that of Hugh Jackman as “the Drover.” One can imagine that in other Jackman vehicles, he was simply told “Hey, Wolverine – just stand over there and look seductive.” There is a certain amount of standing around and looking seductive in “Australia” as well, a responsibility shared between Jackman and Kidman, but their acting transcends the usual “chick flick” melodrama / romantic comedy genre. Kidman’s performance as Sarah is reminiscent of her role of Satine in “Moulin Rouge.” The character arch is similar as we discover that there is much more to the ice princess than meets the eye. No deep revelations in her performance, but competently acted throughout.

Another surprise performance comes from David Wenham as bad guy Neil Fletcher, the henchman for “King” Carney. Those who enjoyed Wenham as gentle, sensitive Faramir in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy are in for a rude shock – Fletcher is even meaner than Boromir, Faramir’s megalomaniacal brother.

“Australia” deals with some historical occurrences in a fictionalized manner. Cattle stations were almost like feudal fiefdoms for Aboriginal groups; there really was a government policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families and raising them in state and church run institutions and the city of Darwin was bombed by the Japanese on Feb. 19, 1942 in two attacks, the first occurring at 9:58 a.m., the second about an hour later. At least 243 people were killed and a further 350 were wounded. The city was literally destroyed.

But not our characters, of course. The wet season brings a fresh start to the parched desert and so too does this unlikely family come back from the brink of disaster, stronger than ever and ready to take on new adventures. It is unlikely, though, that there will be a 50s-era sequel where Nullah tries to enroll in college, the Drover comes to terms with chronic back problems and out-of-date job skills and Lady Sarah is embroiled in the international beef market while battling boredom, alcoholism and body image issues. This is just a delicious slice-of-life, a few years that brought Australia into the modern era.

Luhrmann’s first action-adventure movie combines his over-the-top sense of theatricality with the enormous scope of the Australian landscape. Computer graphics are added to great effect; these scenes look like a painting or a stage effect more than “reality,” but they work well in the context of the film. Perhaps the best use of computer graphics is the “cattle stampede” scene, which is a heart-stopper.

The acting is excellent overall and the plot lines and character motivations are plausible. Follow the yellow brick road to “Australia,” and whether the wizard gives you a heart, a brain or even just the bravery to take on a 165-minute movie, you’ll be glad you saw it in a theater, where the scope of the effects can be seen to best advantage.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.