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Baz Luhrmann’s few movies can be described as anything from whimsical tweaks to wild, ecstatic fantasias, but rarely have they followed any sort of formula. When I say that Australia is a good old-fashioned Golden Age of Hollywood romantic epic, I mean it in the best sense. The wild setting of Australia’s Northern Territory, the impossible gorgeousness of leads Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, and the story’s 1939 period and high stakes — it’s so grand and glorious and familiar, yet the Australian setting makes it exotic and new again. Australia (like all Luhrmann’s movies) demands viewing on the big screen — not just for Mandy Walker’s lush cinematography or the intensity of the sequences writ large — but for the sublime collective experience of being in a room with hundreds experiencing the movie together. One moment in particular elicited a mass groan of ecstasy from our packed audience, which then elicited empathetic giggles from everyone. You’ll know the moment when you see it.

The story, while engaging, is pretty standard fare, predictable by the rules that cinema has taught us. The real pleasure is in the rediscovery of what it must have felt like to see those old classics for the first time. I am not necessarily equating Australia with Gone With The Wind, even though I really did love both films; my point is the event of seeing a classic film on the silver screen with a full audience around you is an increasingly rare experience. In the film, we get a taste of what it was like back then to see the Wizard of Oz for the first time, and Luhrmann even manages to make “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” sound new and poignant again.

Kidman might lose the ranch to Carney the cattle baron (or his henchman Fletcher) unless she gets the lone wolf known as The Drover (Jackman) to help her. Nullah is a “half-caste” (born of white and aboriginal parents) child hiding on her property to escape “rescue” by the Aboriginal Assimilation missions. (For a thorough exploration of this terrible Australian legacy, see the wonderful 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence.) And there’s a drought. And World War II is crouched on their doorstep. And Jackman has to ride horses in open-necked shirts. The whole situation is fraught. The film is not over the top like Moulin Rouge; it strikes just the right tone of seriousness and reverence for the subject and it is crammed with action, excitement, loss, and romance.

Kidman (sporting the first suntan she ever got in her life) is clearly having a fantastic time with her buttoned-up Brit character (and no doubt being immersed in her native Australia), and it shows. She is always best as an actress when she is relaxed, and her barramundi-out-of-water Lady Ashley character is delightful. Jackman has to do no work to remind us he’s Sexiest Man Alive, but don’t forget this guy is a quadruple threat singer-dancer-actor-athlete — and he too is having a ball playing the rough and rugged Drover. Australian machismo makes that of other nations look pasty and wan in comparison. Jackman’s tanned and ripply form next to the porcelain waif Kidman speaks volumes about the colony’s divergence from the motherland.

David Wenham (Fletcher) twirls his wicked moustache with panache and bile, but thankfully never quite gets to the cape flinging “you must pay the rent” malevolence that a lesser actor might have limned. He is the lynchpin to the story, keeping the large-scale epic drama really an intimate conflict painted on a huge, luxuriant canvas. At last we come to first-timer Brandon Walters as Nullah, the boy mystic who sings his aboriginal magic and tightens the bonds among the other leads. His performance is fantastic and his eyes are as deep as Australia is wide.

If you can forgive the Elton John song over the credits (I could, my companion could not) I think you can walk out of the movie theatre feeling you got your money’s worth. Thanks to parking fees, I actually paid $25 to see this movie, and I still feel OK about it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/26/08
Time in minutes 165
Director Baz Luhrmann
Studio 20th Century Fox