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Crikey, Mate! 

Epic Australia Goes Down Under For Old-school Storytelling

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Is Baz Luhrmann's sprawling epic Australia a love story? An adventure pic? A war flick? In the grand tradition of old-school Hollywood movies, Luhrmann's $130 million movie is all of these. Set in 1939, on the eve of Australia's involvement in World War II, English aristocrat Sarah Ashley (played with proper stick-up-her-ass form by Nicole Kidman) inherits property in Australia. A conniving cattleman and his evil henchman have other plans for the land. Enter outback cowboy Drover (a dashing Hugh Jackman) to save the day.

Luhrmann was still putting together his long-delayed, over-budget film (it's the most expensive Australian movie ever made) days before its Australian premiere last week. He should have spent more time cutting and working on the too-tidy ending. At two hours and 45 minutes, it's way too long. And it's stuffed with Aussie clichés - from kangaroos and walkabouts to multiple exclamations of "crikey!"

But like an old-school Hollywood epic (most of which are also too long and loaded with clichés), Australia is majestic filmmaking. There's a rousing musical score (by David Hirschfelder), sweeping shots of the Australian outback and an awesome stampede scene. And it picks up considerably after its first lethargic hour.

We even first meet Jackman's Drover in the middle of an old-Hollywood bar brawl, pummeling drunks two at a time. He's been recruited to bring Lady Sarah to Faraway Downs, Australia's version of Gone With the Wind's Tara homestead. Her husband went to Australia to drive cattle, until somebody put a spear through him (the authorities say it was King George, a mystical Aborigine; most likely it was rival cattleman and thief Neil Fletcher, played by a sneering David Wenham).

Sarah and Drover's initial scenes together play like an outback African Queen, with the haughty Lady barely concealing her disgust for the unshaven stockman. Her wide-eyed wonder at the hopping kangaroos is cut short when one of Drover's men kills one and later serves it for supper. She's even more distressed when she has to sleep under the stars with Drover and his men.

But soon Sarah comes to love the land. She gets into the cattle business, recruiting Drover and pissing off Fletcher in the process. She even takes in Nullah (13-year-old newcomer Brandon Walters), a mixed-race Aboriginal boy who recently lost his mother. Here, Luhrmann introduces yet another factor to the movie's mix: Australian law stated that mixed-race kids couldn't live with their families or with white people. These Stolen Generation children were instead shipped to church missions.

All these plot points come together before the end of the film's first half. There's no intermission, but it sure feels like there should be; Australia shifts gears for its final 80 minutes. Drover woos Sarah at an upper-class party ("I mix with dingoes, not duchesses," he tells her). They fight. He goes off and does his thing. Fletcher threatens Sarah. Then the Japanese bomb the hell out of the city.

While Luhrmann doesn't paint Australia with the stylish pop-art colors he applied to Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, he does inject some fantasy elements. Early on, Sarah, struggling as surrogate mother to Nullah, tells the boy about The Wizard of Oz. The rest of the film plays around with an Oz motif: There's a twister here. There's some magic there. "Over the Rainbow" is all over the place. Australia even ends with a character riffing on "There's no place like home." It's all helplessly hokey.

But Australian Luhrmann clearly loves his country, as do native stars Kidman and Jackman. "This land has a strange power," someone says to Sarah near the beginning of the movie. Indeed. Australia, like The Wizard of Oz, has a dreamlike pull. There are plenty of scenes where the big, sprawling countryside hogs the screen. Even the film's stars get lost in it.

Still, Jackman makes a fetching hero, looking like a young Clint Eastwood at times in his cowboy hat and dusty garb. And yes, the newly anointed Sexiest Man Alive spends some of his scenes shirtless. That's good news to fans of the film's love story, which doesn't kick in for an hour or so. But there's payoff, especially when Drover and Sarah kiss while a storm rages around them. It's Australia at its most old-Hollywood magnificent. And at its hoariest.

mgallucci@clevescene.com

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