| Oscar-nominated filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!” and “Strictly Ballroom”) had the audacity to give his film a title that nobody would forget. With a $130 million budget, it is the most expensive Australian film ever made. It is an Outback epic adventure fashioned in the classic style of “Gone with the Wind”, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Out of Africa.” This colossal folly is an exercise in excess and overindulgence where nothing was left on the cutting room floor. Luhrmann has attempted to save his country’s film industry and encourage tourism to the Land Down Under in one fell swoop. He brings to mind the great showman P. T. Barnum and his three-ring circus.
The headliners at the top of the marquee are Hugh Jackman (recently named 2008’s Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine) and Nicole Kidman. However, the real breakout star of this film is 12-year-old Brandon Walters who plays Nullah, a mixed-blood Aboriginal boy representing the Stolen Generation forcibly assimilated into Caucasian culture.
Nullah narrates the story set in the early 1940s which starts out like an old-fashioned Western with a budding Harlequin-type romance. Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), a sophisticated English aristocrat, comes to the Northern Territory in search of her womanizing husband. She is met by his trusted man Drover (Jackman). They get along like a burning house. After a scenic drive that includes a band of jumping kangaroos, they arrive at the Ashley’s cattle station Faraway Downs. Sarah discovers her husband lying dead on the dining room table. She instantly realizes that she is a widow and then learns foreclosure is imminent on her newly inherited property. Rather than taking the easy out of selling to a malevolent rival cattle baron (Bryan Brown ) and his evil henchman (David Wenham), she makes the rash decision to round up and drive 1,500 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of rough and barren terrain to the port city of Darwin, where the beef can be sold to the Army. She puts Drover in charge of this monumental undertaking. This cattle drive takes up the first half of the picture.
The most impressive action set piece occurs when the cattle stampede along the edge of a cliff. When they camp overnight, Sarah tells Nullah a story about Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. She sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the little boy. It becomes the theme song of the movie. Nullah learns to play it on a harmonica. Although it is said that repetition is the sincerest form of flattery, it becomes ludicrous and irritating that the PLAY button is stuck on this song. Another night on the prairie finds Sarah and Drover loosening up around the campfire with a few shots of rum. They flirt, dance and exchange passionate kisses. They beat the odds and end up in Darwin. Nullah goes to the movies and actually sees “The Wizard of Oz.”
In a reversal of standard formulaic moviemaking, it is Drover rather than Sarah who undergoes a complete makeover. He cleans up real good by shaving off his mustache and beard. He dons a white tuxedo and takes princess Sarah to the ball. The drought plaguing the land magically comes to an end and it starts raining. A hurried love scene that feels rushed shortchanges the viewer. Their romance blossoms into a blissful state of cohabitation. Sarah, Drover and Nullah are thrown together in a haphazardly created family unit. The movie is only at the halfway point.
This strange and eccentric film is a mixed bag of high and low points which eventually wears you out. The movie tries to be too many things in one package. It is a history lesson, a Western, a romance, a musical and a war drama. It makes for a very frustrating experience with too many disjointed pieces. It is guilty of wild mood swings and abrupt shifts in tone. More astute editing could have saved the day. The better option would have been to turn this into a television miniseries where it could have been broken up into several episodes.
This never-ending story takes you down a long and winding road. With a running time of nearly three hours, it brings to mind the cinematic bust “Ishtar.” The movie’s strengths include the costumes and production design credited to Luhrmann’s Oscar-winning wife Catherine Martin. The musical score by David Hirschfelder (“Shine” and “Elizabeth”) is an impressive body of work and integral to the activity on screen. Kidman looks incredibly thin with strawberry blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes. Her ramrod straight posture doesn’t detract from how lovely she looks either riding horseback or on a dance floor in an elaborate gown. The rough-and-ready Jackman makes an indelible impression lathering up bare-chested after spending a day in the saddle.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"