Baz Luhrmann's Australia has received both positive and negative reviews from the professionals, and almost in equal measure. I have to confess that I enjoyed both the story and the cinematography of this very big production.
Brett McCracken, a Christianity Today film reviewer, says this film is one "of great ambition and artistic audacity." The title itself reveals his point. The intentions of Luhrmann were never to make a definitive film about the county/continent, but rather to provide an big, grand extravaganza of a movie that takes you back to the big films that Hollywood produced twenty or thirty years ago. This, I would guess, may be the reason why so many modern reviewers simply do not like the film.
The story is set in the late 1930 and early 1940s as World War II begins to touch the northern coast of Australia. The viewer is taken into a part of the Japanese war effort that is not generally known in America. The impact this war had on far away Australia is quite remarkable really.
The story begins with the appearance of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman).
She comes from England to check in on her husband, who she soon learns has been murdered. His ranch is now under the threat of seizure by a rival cattle rancher who immediately proves to be a dark figure in the unfolding story. Lady Ashley enlists the help of a cattle driver named Drover (Hugh Jackman)
who she initially does not care for at all. In order for Lady Ashley to keep Faraway Downs, her husband's ranch in northern Australia, she must get 1,500 cattle to market for a wartime beef sale. While the story is beginning to unfold Lady Ashley also forges a deep bond with a "half-caste" (half aboriginal, half white) orphan boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters). The boy, in an interesting production choice and twist that I much enjoyed, is also the film's narrator.
During this period in Australia's history aboriginal peoples were treated much the way blacks were treated in South Africa. And some of this treatment was promoted by the white church. (The church doesn't fare well in Australia!) This part of the story will reveal the pain of racism to you in a new context, or at least a new one for most viewers. Whites controlled the economy and the property, aboriginals worked for the whites and were second-class in every way, and half-caste children, like Nullah, were treated the worst of all. (Obviously, such half-caste children reveal one of the moral problems of the time, but who was applying moral principles when this kind of racism worked so well?)
All of this makes Australia what Brett McCracken rightly calls a "self-conscious examination of race." It is this thread that deeply impacted me on an emotional and personal level. At times the story became all too predictable, and the film like its Hollywood predecessors, is quite long. But the combination of aboriginal culture clashing with the world of the West is intriguing and moving. All of this reveals something of the true story of Australia, a culture of real conflicts and rejected and displaced people. The clergy are not generally portrayed positively in this film, with one exception in the case of a good priest, but one gets the feeling that this is presented about as it probably should be given the times and the story itself.
Liberation becomes a big emphasis in Australia and thus takes the viewer into another one of the film's big themes: dreams. It is more than interesting that Judy Garland's theme song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" becomes an iconic song in this movie, positioned as it is in the same time period as huge epic film, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Lady Ashley tells Nullah
the story of The Wizard of Oz and this provides one of the more touching human moments in the film. You seen realize that Nullah is truly the heart and soul of the story, which provides a great surprise and joy. But Lady Ashley is a force to be reckoned with. Drover works well in the overall story but only in a secondary way. As child actors go Brandon Walters (Nullah) is a true show stopper.
Australia has caused many critics to see it as a big, overdone and sappy movie. I do not agree. I think the combination of racial themes, with the outbreak of World War II, and the fully expected love story between Drover and Lady Ashley, all make this a big film with a lot of heart. And the ending is both moving and satisfying. Australia is not a four-star film but I would gladly give it three-stars. It is not the best film story of the year, nor is it truly great art at all, but it is a big movie that works quite nicely and has the feel of beauty, love, hope and amazement.
Australia is rated PG-13, mostly for violence (war scenes, bombings, stampede tramplings and a spearing) and a brief sex scene that is generally tasteful and in which there is no nudity. The language is not horrible with the single instance of an f-bomb. I think teens, generally speaking, would get a positive and useful message from Australia but I would not take young children to see it at all.