An epic drama that carries on so long you start to feel as if you've been deported to Sydney, Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" falls into a curious trap: It's a labor of love that's sorely lacking in heart.
Luhrmann - in his first effort since "Moulin Rouge" (2000) - floods the screen with surreal colors, fussily details costumes and swooning widescreen shots of the Australian countryside; he wants us to be very conscious of the fact that we're watching a hyper-stylized ode to the Hollywood epics of yore, like "Gone with the Wind" and "Giant." But the story he's conjured up here, a tempestuous romance that unfolds against the backdrop of a massive cattle drive, is trite and attenuated - the stuff of cartoons, not epics.
The central performance by Nicole Kidman, meanwhile, is a calamity. With her face frozen into a inexpressive mask, and her physical movements tense and brittle, Kidman makes it almost impossible to be drawn into the proceedings.
Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, who - just prior to World War II reaching the shores of Australia - travels to a remote territory called Faraway Downs, expecting to rein in her philandering husband. She arrives, however, to find her husband has been murdered, and that a competing business interest, led by the nefarious King Carney (Bryan Brown), is trying to buy Faraway Downs. Determined to keep the place under her control, Lady Sarah teams up with Drover (Hugh Jackman), an unruly ranch hand, to drive 1,500 cattle to the port, where they hope to win a government contract.
Written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, "Australia" mostly just begs the question: It took four writers to come up with this?
Solid as an oak tree (and almost as tall), and willing to be aggressively ogled by the camera, Jackman gamely tries to resurrect the classic, Clark Gable-style matinee idol: the hunk who appeals equally to teenage girls and their grandmothers. But he might as well be acting opposite an oak tree for all the heat he's able to generate with the ice-cold Kidman. The lack of chemistry between them is fatal to this kind of movie, which - á la "Titanic" - relies on swooning romanticism to compensate for all the cringe-inducing clichés.
The most interesting thing about "Australia," as is so often the case with Luhrmann's work, is the visual design. The hyper-saturated colors seem to pop off the screen, as if Technicolor had just been invented last week (in case you miss the point, Luhrmann makes repeated references to the similarly bright "The Wizard of Oz"). The characters' make-up is wildly exaggerated - Kidman's skin is as white as chalk, while Jackman's spray-tan turns him the color of a football. The backdrops are photographed to look like the rear-projections of a Hollywood backlot, even though the film was shot on location.
Yet what's the point of all this? In "Moulin Rouge" and especially his masterful adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" (1996), Luhrmann created a kind of frenzied postmodernism - the artifice was so extreme that it reconstituted into something smashingly pure and original. In "Australia," though, the style isn't wedded to any larger themes or ideas, and the movie comes across as a belabored stunt. In effect, the director has spent a reported $130 million trying to make the movie as deliberately cheap as possible.
You can't quite call "Australia" a disaster - there are a couple of entertaining action sequences, including one in which Lady Sarah's herd is nearly driven over a cliff - but it does turn out to be the very definition of a cinematic folly. Like Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" (1980), Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1989), or, more recently, M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water," it's the overwrought effort of an artist entirely too drunk on his own hype - a movie so full of itself that it eventually bursts into pieces.