Review: Australia (2008)

Note: This article was originally published in Technician on December 1, 2008.


'Australia' gives an uneven outback ride

Just when you thought the only thing to see in theaters was teen vampires or mindless action, behold! There’s a new epic drama by the director of Moulin Rouge! Australia promised to be a timeless throwback to the epic romances of the past, but does it deliver? Sometimes.

The film follows a widowed English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) trying to protect her newly inherited ranch from a corporate takeover. Though it doesn’t sound like the most exciting plot, there are enough twists and turns ranging from a cattle drive across the desert to a Japanese military invasion that it feels surprisingly fresh and intriguing. Hugh Jackman plays the widow’s herder-turned-lover and newcomer Brandon Walters shines as an Aboriginal boy.

The problem with Australia lies not in its ambition but in its execution. Though the premise is an engaging one, it’s as if Luhrmann didn’t know what kind of movie he was making. A serious drama? Romance? Slapstick comedy? An homage to the old-fashioned epics of the 30s and 40s?  The film breezes through so many genres over its three-hour runtime that it’s very difficult to figure out how one is supposed to be feeling while watching it.  

This isn’t to say that Australia is a bad film. On the contrary, it does have its moments of greatness. The cinematography is gorgeous. The performances are fantastic. And even though the first half of the film mainly follows our protagonists as they guide a herd of cattle, it’s never boring.  

Unfortunately, though it gets off to a promising start, the second half is too slow-paced and predictable for its own good. Whereas the first act paid homage to classic Westerns through its use of painted backdrops and obvious set pieces, the rest is edited so inconsistently that it’s difficult to see what Luhrmann was aiming for. One minute a scene looks like it was taken straight out of Gone With The Wind, the next it’s cutting quickly to extreme close-ups like typical modern-day fare.  

Not to mention the melodrama. The final act is so cheesy that one wonders if the actors were purposefully directed to act as over-the-top as possible or if it’s the fault of poor editing. Not even a groundbreaking performance by Walters can stop the film from feeling like the kind of thing you’d see parodied on SNL.

Australia is not a failure by any stretch of the imagination. There’s enough substance to the story (at least in the first half) and eye candy to satisfy the average viewer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t compare with Luhrmann’s previous works, and in the end what could have been a masterpiece is relatively average fare.