Australia Dir. Baz Luhrmann

[20th Century Fox; 2008]

With 2001's Moulin Rouge!, director Baz Luhrmann left an arrow pointed for the stars. Seven years and one failed production later (he wasn't able to get his Alexander the Great biopic off the ground before Oliver Stone could), the filmmaker is back with a movie that he spent years putting together. Consequently, expectations for Australia, a Western epic set in Luhrmann's home country, were predictably high, but, unfortunately for the audience, it took almost three hours to show how he failed to meet them.

Set in 1939 -- the year of The Wizard of Oz, a movie to which Luhrmann frequently draws allusions -- Australia takes place in the country's outback, focusing on a cattle ranch faced with corrupt competition and employees who sell fattened calves under the table. But the story focuses more closely on the people who run it -- Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), wife of the ranch's late owner who comes into possession of the property; an unnamed cattle drover (Hugh Jackman), who inadvertently falls for the Lady; and their as-good-as-adopted son Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-white, half-aboriginal adolescent who links all of the characters together.

Race relations is the film's primary concern, and Nullah's ethnicity is the central device used to tackle it. As recently as the 1970s, the Australian government has been attempting to, as one of the film's minor characters puts it, "take the Black out of" the native youth by forcing them into Christian reeducation camps. It's a story about the tension between the aboriginals and the white residents, and Luhrmann subsequently advances a rather uncontroversial, banal belief that the two peoples, while different, should be allies instead of enemies. The success of the characters hinges on Nullah happiness, and his literal racial link between the two parties makes him inextricable from the film's ideological message. Yet his role doesn't make up for the triteness of its message.

However, it's not as easy to critique the rest of Australia. The film is, in most respects, a decently made picture. The acting is adequate, and the art production varies from good to great. Cinematographer Mandy Walker manages to stay true to the blank landscapes of the Outback, while still peppering them with some gorgeously lit sunsets. And despite hardly justifying the rumored $130 million budget for the art production, costume designer Catherine Martin dresses Jackman in wonderful cowboy apparel that could have fit seamlessly in a fashion magazine photoshoot.

But cumulative criticism isn't the key here; Australia's biggest downfall is its failure to inspire. What is supposed to be a Western Epic isn't very epic at all, and for all its emotional exhaustion, it should have ended an hour early. Without much to say and failing to host much thrill or entertainment value, Australia is sure to let down anyone who actually anticipated the film.

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