Wednesday, December 17, 2008


We all want the return of the epic movie. Some huge, spectacular film that shows us another land, in perhaps another time, that shows the growth of an era and its characters. Maybe one so long that has to have the intermission that marked truly remarkable films of the 1950's. Unfortunately, Australia isn't that movie.

Oh, it's long enough, clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes. But most of our characters are very thin -- and I'm not talking about Nicole Kidman's physique. And we see just an iota of the gorgeous and varied Australian country.

In northern Australia at the beginning of World War II, an English aristocrat (Lady Sarah Ashley, played by Nicole Kidman) comes to Austalia to find her errant husband, finds him dead, and thereby inherits a cattle station the size of Maryland. When an English cattle baron (King Carney, played by Bryan Brown) plots to take her land, she reluctantly joins forces with the Drover (Hugh Jackman) to drive 2,000 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of the country's most unforgiving land, only to still face the bombing of Darwin, Australia, by the Japanese forces that had attacked Pearl Harbor only months earlier.

The characters are truly hackneyed, from the stick-in-the-mud Lady Ashley to the rough-hewn Drover to the evil Neil Fletcher (played by Lord of the Ring's David Wenham), Carney's henchman. However, the one unique character in the whole bunch is a godsend to the project: Nullah (played by newcomer Brandon Walters) is a half-Aboriginal child who tugs on everybody's hearts, including our own. Nullah confers over many miles with his grandfather, an Aboriginal magic man, and deals with the challenges that confront him with quiet strength gained from this relationship. The little boy is a wonder to watch in spite of all of the action-stopping explanations of outdated and bigoted Australian law.

The sets are incredible, vast and, when the Japanese bomb Darwin, truly eye-popping. But the true drama is in how the characters survive and what they learn, and that's never at question. It's all very predictable, but in a feel-good kind of way.

I was rarely bored, as the film survives on the intensity of the actors' personalities. Kidman is badly lit, looks terribly thin and pasty, and is hard to believe in her part. Jackman is the real star here, and the camera (and apparently director Luhrmann) loves him. Every movement of his seems to be in slow-motion or lovingly lingering. And the guy can truly ride a horse; watching him ride is like watching a ballet of man and horse.

And it's wonderful to see Australian actor Bryan Brown again, having discovered him in Thornbirds and Breaker Morant.

It's not a bad film, but it's not a great, epic film either. It's an interesting story only because it's from the point of view of the Aborigine boy and because of the power of these actors.

If this sounds to you like something you'd enjoy, Thumb's up. If you're still waiting for the next epic film, skip it.

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