‘Australia’ a good, old-fashioned romantic saga | AspenTimes.com

‘Australia’ a good, old-fashioned romantic saga

Amy Biancolli
Houston Chronicle
Aspen, CO Colorado
Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman star in "Australia."

“Australia” is not what I expected. I expected a furrowed-brow drama set in an epic, historic and dusty setting, starring too-beautiful lovers and magnificent vistas.

There’s drama, all right. The film is epic and dusty. Its leads are strikingly handsome, and the vistas ” well, they’re magnificent. I also expected cliches, and indeed I found them.

But there isn’t a single furrowed-brow moment in the entire movie. I’m not sure it has a brow at all: not high, not low, not middle. There are no monologues of precious Oscar posturing, no artsy edits or camera angles ” nothing but a long, lusty romantic saga that bursts with the old-style joys of moviemaking. Comedy and tragedy, action and melodrama, full measures of quirk and swoon: It’s just a plain good time at the movies. And minus a gauzy (but discreet) sex scene or two, it might have been made many years ago. Sixty-nine, to be precise.

Set in 1939, “Australia” stars Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman as Drover, a cattle herder in Australia’s severe Northern Territory, and Lady Sarah Ashley, a starchy English aristocrat whose husband owns and runs a ranch there. Shortly before she arrives, he’s killed by a glass-tipped spear ” thrown by an aboriginal shaman, perhaps? ” and she’s forced to cope with the harsh realities of life on an Australian cattle station.

The harshest by far is Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), the sneaky station manager who’s been conspiring with a rapacious businessman (Bryan Brown) who owns all of the cattle in the Northern Territory ” all but hers. When Sarah realizes Fletcher is behind a plot to steal her unbranded cattle and yank the station out from under her, she resolves to drive her entire herd to the port of Darwin and sell them to the military.

To do this, she must convince Drover to help, which takes some doing. But before long they’ve assembled a rag-tag group to “drove” the cattle to Darwin, battling off the squinting Fletcher and his oily henchman at every turn. I’m pretty sure none of the bad guys literally twirls a mustache, but they may as well; it’s that kind of movie. It’s also the kind of movie in which a strait-laced woman spies a manly-man soaping up his bod, and then ” literally, this time ” gulps in awe.

Props to Jackman and Kidman, who embrace the material with a full-on commitment to overacting that never turns too pandering or stupid. There’s no point participating in a film like this unless you’re OK, truly OK, with the pinched waists and melodramatic longing that it entails. Australia is as much a chesty Western romance as “The Big Country,” all thundering hooves, huge expanses and tough frontier people trying to make a go at love.

But that’s not all. Among Lady Ashley’s droving clan is Nullah (luminous newcomer Brandon Walters), the son of an aboriginal housekeeper and that reprehensible, conniving Fletcher. As a half-white, half-indigenous child, he’s in constant danger of being nabbed by the authorities and sent to a mission ” as part of Australia’s decades-long practice of purifying whites and assimilating aborigines. Nullah’s grandfather is King George (David Gulpilil), the shaman suspected of murder, and he seems to have inherited supernatural gifts. The pair of them give the film an otherworldly Antipodean aura, singing and chanting their dreams.

Director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann is known as the snazzy innovator who brought hipness to Shakespeare (“Romeo + Juliet”) and hotness to musicals (“Moulin Rouge!”). But he’s also a traditionalist ” why else would he work so hard to revivify old genres? ” and he displays in “Australia” a sure grip on tried-and-true narrative conventions. There is no mistaking his faith in the power of a well-told tale.

“In the end, the only thing you really own is your story,” Drover says. “I’m just trying to live a good one.”

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