You don't have to have been raised on colonial Brit lit, classic melodramas, Westerns, and war movies, or Gone With the Wind to figure out the likely outcome of Baz Luhrmann's Australia within its first 15 minutes, but all of the above will help. Corseted, posh English stiff finds herself unwillingly parked in dusty corner of scenic Commonwealth country, which is preferably on the brink of global military conflict. Posh stiff takes throbbingly pre-erotic dislike to hirsute but reassuringly Anglo diamond in the rough, who glowers back briefly, then shows her how to love the land, be nice to brown-skinned natives, let her hair down every which way, and never think of England again. Australia tells a boilerplate tale already deeply embedded in the narratives of guilty imperial aggressors and their former colonies. Only this time, in honor of the Australian government's formal apology to its Aboriginal citizens earlier this year for stealing and forcibly churching their children, the story is told from the viewpoint of an indigenous boy caught between conquerors and conquered.
This is all to the good, given that the love affair on which the action nominally hinges never really takes root in the dusty soil. In part, that's because it stars two Aussies who do "pretty" better than "sexy." Nicole Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, a prim beanpole of a socialite who shows up on the Outback cattle ranch of Faraway Downs with lots of fancy luggage, a love of horses, and a suspicion that her louse of a husband is carrying on with hussies. Unfortunately, she channels neither Deborah Kerr nor Katharine Hepburn, but a weirdly pedantic amalgam of Leslie Howard and Mary Poppins. Lady S.'s inconvenient spouse is promptly dispatched, leaving a trail of false murder charges, land envy, and miscegenation behind him, and before long she has jettisoned her high-necked blouses and cardigans in favor of whip and jodhpurs, and started batting eyelashes at a barrel-chested drover named Drover, played with a harmless blend of twinkle and tragedy by Hugh Jackman. Kidman and Jackman accomplish their transformation from lost souls to lovers and de facto parents like the comfortable old pals they are in life.
For truer romance and sexual steam, I refer you to Luhrmann's first and best film, Strictly Ballroom. Still, there's plenty more going on in this 165-minute epic. The director has stuffed it with every genre he never got around to plundering for Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, and some that he did. Luhrmann's magpie scavenging of ideas from the Hollywood spectaculars that fed his imagination through a childhood in rural Australia is invigorating and fun. But there are simply too many of them crammed into Australia. The result is a wooden and derivative melding of '40s maternal melodramas, oaters, and World War II actioners as Sarah, Drover, and their cobbled-together multi-culti family herd cattle across the Outback to the town of Darwin, as it braces itself for a devastating attack by Japanese warplanes.
With its stagey set pieces and declamatory dialogue, Australia also feels like a musical from which all singing and dancing has been trimmed except for some strenuous theft from The Wizard of Oz. The references notably lack Luhrmann's usual arch mischief, and if you blink you'll miss the tongue-in-cheek in his travelogue vision of Australia (beautifully lit in Old Master light and shadow by cinematographer Mandy Walker) as the real Oz—a land of kangaroos, billabongs, Chinese cooks, and boozy pub-goers roaring their way through "Waltzing Matilda."
That said, you'd need a heart of stone to resist the enchanting little boy, Nullah (wonderfully played by newcomer Brandon Walters), the offspring of a white man and an Aboriginal mother, who drives the magical-realist subtext of Australia and its generously inclusive and forgiving vision. (Luhrmann allegedly shot three endings to the movie, and it feels as though they all made the cut.) I can picture hardcore haters of the colonial oppressor rolling their eyes at Nullah's farewell line, "I'll sing you to me, Mrs. Boss." But a little conciliation goes a long way these days, and I freely confess to being almost as undone by the ending of Australia as I was by the climax of that other post-colonial feel-good movie of the year, Slumdog Millionaire.