1939 is generally considered to be the greatest year in film history. In those 12 months, audiences got to discover such timeless classics as “Gone With the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Stagecoach”, to name but three movies which, if you were to crossbreed them, might just give birth to something like this here “Australia”, an epic down-under Western fairy tale set in “a land of crocodiles, cattle barons and warrior chiefs, where adventure and romance was a way of life.”
Not so incidentally, director Baz Luhrmann has set most of “Australia” in 1939, as one Lady Sarah Ashley (the always irresistible Nicole Kidman) finds herself forced to leave her cozy England to go get her hands dirty on a ranch in the outback of, yes, Australia. Said ranch, which has been christened Faraway Downs, belonged to her recently murdered husband and happens to be the only cattle station in the country that has yet to be taken over by the Carney Company. To save her inherited property, though, Lady Ashley will have to drive 1500 heads of cattle all the way to the coast and deliver them to the army before it signs an exclusive contract with old man Carney (Bryan Brown).
Enters the Drover (an equally badass and charming Hugh Jackman), a rough-around-the-edges Aussie cowboy who, with the help of some trusted Aboriginals, will help Lady Ashley on her journey. While they initially get on each other’s nerves, you can bet that sexual tension and/or true love will eventually prevail, which leads to plenty of the kind of spectacularly romantic moments that have become Luhrmann’s trademark, notably a ball scene followed by a kiss in the rain which is sure to make you swoon.
But as great as that is, that’s actually not even the best thing about “Australia”. You see, the true heart of the story is the very touching relationship between Lady Ashley and a “half-caste” boy named Nullah (extraordinary newcomer Brandon Walters), who’s in every other scene from the first to the last and also acts as the film’s narrator, calling to mind Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”, which was also narrated by a child. That’s probably just me, but I also got a strong “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” vibe out of the rapport between Drover and Nullah, which I thought felt very Indy and Short Round.
Baz’ latest might differ from his Red Curtain Trilogy by doing away with the overt theatricality, madcap visuals and musical numbers, but it’s still driven by his infectious love of every aspect of filmmaking. “Australia” is a five-course meal of a movie, an old-fashioned yarn full of iconic imagery, soaring music and wonderful acting. The third act, set in 1942 as the Japanese bomb Oz, is kind of a narrative clusterfuck, but the payoff is so damn moving that you’ll easily forgive the few uneasy steps that lead to it.