“Australia” successfully tells the continent’s pre-World War II history in a grand, epic scale, but lacks consistent structure that could have made it achieve greatness. The films flaws include certain character development that is not fully realized and views of the aboriginals that is somewhat offensive to their culture. “Australia” is stylishly photographed with performances from the leads that carry the film to a reasonably effective conclusion.
Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman) comes to visit her husband, an owner of the cattle ranch Faraway Downs, in Australia to convince him to sell the land to King Carney, who owns the remainder of the farmland, and move back to England. She gets off the airplane and is told to meet with an esteemed worker named Drover (Hugh Jackman), who is instructed to drive her to Faraway Downs. Although she dreads the journey and wishes to evacuate the continent as soon as possible, Lady Ashley grows a strong kinship with the outback and Drover, its greatest admirer.
Eventually, Lady Ashley and Drover find their way to the ranch and are horrified to learn that her husband has been killed. Other events take place and Lady Ashley adopts a biracial boy named Nullah as her son, while keeping Drover on as her main ranch hand in charge of bringing cattle to the shore in an attempt to sell them to the Allied forces. Lady Ashley and Drover begin to fall in love, but are continuously halted in their business by the nefarious dealings of King Carney and especially Neil Fletcher, a former employee. The story takes diverse routes in the love, business, and country aspects, all leading to the inevitability of war.
Nicole Kidman provides a certain grace and yet toughness with her portrayal of Lady Ashley. There is a shot in the film taken right before she and Hugh Jackman are preparing to have their first kiss in which you get lost in her eyes, not only because of their beauty but also for the significance of the feelings they express. Jackman, who has a more conventional role, is interesting in the way he plays Drover as a man of the earth who will not be tied down for any reason, even at the expense of his own happiness. The scene when Jackman and Kidman have their first kiss is sensual, magnetic, innocent, and slow, making one reminisce about those teenage kisses where neither is exactly sure how the other will react.
The film’s most egregious missteps are the way it views the aboriginals as people with special powers derived from their culture and how the Fletcher character is handled as a menace to society. “Australia” views aboriginals as people who have a special attachment to both the land and God. This makes their persecutors ignorant, as they were with Jesus, rather than small, racist, and cruel if aboriginals are normal, every day people. This view seems similar to the United States outlook on the means by which they treated both Native Americans and blacks. On the other hand, Fletcher is not a real person, but simply an evil man Luhrmann believed was needed in order to fill out three hours of melodrama.
The best shot in the film is when Luhrmann simply cascades over the landscape, not because it exposes anything about the characters but rather for the manner in which he exhibits the love he has for his native country. This love is shown within the filmmaking process, including the casting of two native Australians for the leads who understand the deep, everlasting impression this continent has on him. The audience feels this love too, and by conveying this with an entertaining approach, “Australia” becomes Luhrmann’s dream come true.