DVD Release Date:  March 3, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  November 26, 2008
Rating:  PG-13 (for some violence and a scene of sensuality)
Genre:  Drama, Romance, War
Run Time:  165 min.
Director:  Baz Luhrmann
Actors:  Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil, David Wenham, Jack Thompson

In the worst miscalculation of Baz Luhrmann’s wannabe epic, Australia, the film dares to use The Wizard of Oz as a motif for the hopes and dreams of its three primary characters.

Luhrmann is a risky filmmaker—his previous films, Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom, were risks that paid off—but drawing overt comparisons to a beloved film like Wizard is a step too far for this sagging, muddled film. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, Australia never offers much of a reason for viewers to invest their time—or emotions—in its story about an English woman, a rugged Australian outdoorsman and the half-Aboriginal boy they guard and protect.

The film begins as a picturesque, quirky fish-out-of-water story on a big canvass before aiming for epic-scale romance and pathos, and a social message about Australia’s “stolen generations”—Aborigine youth who were removed from their families by governmental and religious authorities.

That’s a lot for one movie to juggle—even one that clocks in at two-and-three-quarter hours—so it’s unsurprising, yet still dispiriting, that Australia never coheres into the historical epic it aims to be. Moments of broad humor and Luhrmann’s directorial flourishes add spice to the early stretch of this otherwise bland muddle of a movie, but it doesn’t take too long to recognize that Australia is an overstuffed Thanksgiving turkey.

On the eve of World War II, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) arrives in Australia to confront her husband, whom she believes has been unfaithful to her. Her arrival is witnessed by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a “half-caste” (half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian) child who narrates the story of the strange white woman (his grandfather distrusts white people) who will discover that her husband has been murdered.

The only way Ashley can raise the money to preserve his estate, Faraway Downs, is to drive 1,500 cattle to Darwin, Australia, and sell them to the Australian military. Assisting her is the Drover (Hugh Jackman) and some Aborigine assistants. These men respect each other, but the Drover’s refusal to look down upon them has hurt his reputation among the whites who control so much of the land Down Under. Among them are King Carney (Bryan Brown) and Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), who have their own plans for Faraway Downs.

The Drover and Sarah eventually admit their attraction to one another, and Sarah’s maternal instincts draw her to Nullah. She expresses an interest in adopting the boy, but the two are separated and Nullah is confined to an island with other mixed-race children. The island then becomes a target for an attack by Japanese fighter pilots.

Historical sweep aside, the film’s view of spirituality is troubling. Nullah has power over animals and nature, and his grandfather (David Gulpilil)—described by one character as a “witch doctor”—is the sort of “holy man” we’ve seen countless times before: a dark-skinned native with access to unseen forces and powers, and someone we are supposed to admire and never question. The Christians are the ones behind the campaign to re-educate Nullah and the other children they round up—a shameful legacy that has no positive corollary in the film.