25 November 2008

At the movies: Australia.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) must leave England to tend to her family's Australian cattle ranch. There, she encounters the half-caste mystical child Nullah, culture clash on several levels, and Hugh Jackman, done up right as The Drover- an independent businessman who handles business all over the Northern Australian frontier.

Sweeping plains, arid desert, cute animals, collective racial guilt, financial shenanigans, and the timeless power of "Over The Rainbow." Nobody blends disparate cultural touchstones together quite like Baz (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) Luhrmann, and Australia is a glorious mess of an acheivement.

Hugh Jackman gets to be Clint Eastwood (eye-lit man of mystery in bar fight), John Wayne (driving cattle across the plains), Cary Grant (when cleaned up for a society ball), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (rescuing children) all in the same movie. Nicole Kidman gets to be all prim and stuffy, then beat a bad guy with a riding crop, herd cattle in the most dangerous part of the Aussie desert, preside over a fancy dance (where she gets to rock a cheongsam like Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love), breathe life into desolate nothingness, sing a little, and give up the goods in a rainstorm.

In the seven years since Moulin Rouge, director/cowriter Baz Luhrmann has remained an enthusiast of mash-up culture and timeless romanticism, and this film could have easily been released in the fifties, such is its sense of Cinemascope epic-ness. For anyone, then, who says they don't make them like they used to. You could almost call it South Pacific with kangaroos.

I spent the first ten minutes thinking I was in hell, then gradually warmed to its blend of frontier adventure, aboriginal magic, and romantic skirmishes. And by its final half hour, I was bawling my face off like a puppy had died right in front of me. If Australia, the film, is about thirty-five minutes too long for its own good, it still delivers everything one could want from an old-fashioned romantic epic. If Pearl Harbor hadn't been made by a sociopath, it might have had some of the emotional impact that this film wrings from its collision with WWII. As it stands, there's nothing else quite like this out there.

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