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Photograph by James Fisher
THE BIG COUNTRY : Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman compete with the landscape in 'Australia.'

Natural Sprawl

Just like the continent, Baz Luhrmann's 'Australia' is all over the map.

By Richard von Busack

There's potency in cheap music, as Noel Coward put it, and a certain potency to expensive cheap cinema as well. When the screen fills up with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman getting into each other's 20-foot-tall face, Australia works. The postmodern smirking that one dreaded from Baz Luhrmann--director of Moulin Rouge! and cinema's leading postmodern smirker--is kept to a minimum.

Luhrmann does belabor "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The song means as much to Australians--who nicknamed the place "Oz"--as it does to old-school gay men. When you want your movie to be The Wizard of Oz, Red River, Gone With the Wind, Oklahoma! and a little of Pearl Harbor, too, you can expect some tonal fluctuations.

The film does have, as advertised, grand landscapes, if not the world-famous outback sunsets; they've been digitally tampered with and augmented with twinkly artificial stars.

As for the real stars: Nicole Kidman warms a little for the part of Lady Sarah Ashley, an Englishwoman come to Australia in the years before World War II to take up horse breeding. Escorting her to the outback is the Drover (Hugh Jackman).

When they arrive at the remote cattle station Far Away Downs, the lady's lord is laid out, having taken an Abbo spear to the gizzard. The usual suspect who needs rounding up is King George (David Gulpilil, who was sort of the Australian film industry before there was an Australian film industry). This sacred medicine man is the grandfather of the film's narrator, a young boy with tragic-mulatto syndrome, Nullah (Brandon Walters, most adorable). Fletcher (David Wenham), the hired hand skulking about, might be in on the killing. The Far Away Downs cattle have been sighted on the land of the rival rancher King Carney (Bryan Brown).

When Fletcher is fired, taking his men with him, Sarah and the Drover must get the cattle to the city of Darwin. The cattle drive meets with the usual interruptions: stampede and river crossings. In both cases, the 1,500 digitalized bossies are smeary with pixels, as opposed to the genuine cattle drives they undertook in classic Westerns, and even in the not-so-classic ones. (Take the submediocre Western The Undefeated--there's something about the sight of a river of steers that's strangely intoxicating.)

After another montage, a crossing of the Never-Never desert, the beeves arrive in Darwin. The movie would--under usual circumstances--be over. That's the problem; Australia has to reboot, with the arrival of the wet season and a small island of happiness before the Drover longs to drove again. He and Sarah squabble over Nullah's urge to go on a walkabout. Man, woman and child are separated, shortly before the Japanese attack the capital of the Northern Territory.

All they need to end up with too many cooks stirring the soup is to have one Baz Luhrmann directing a movie. He doesn't understand essential simplicity of theme, and he's too self-conscious to make a film go genuinely big without putting quotation marks on everything. One way he could have gotten some power into his story would have been to bump up Wenham's or Brown's characters.

If you ask who was the villain in Gone With the Wind, it's a trick question: the villain was Scarlett, and the villain was Rhett, too. The Drover and Lady Sarah are just as proud as their models but never scheming, never hurt in some way that would make them lash out. They each have about a paragraph of speeches to explain their disappointments in life, but that's not enough. The Drover has personal reasons for hating racism, but the film feels undervillained because the leads are such cardboard conceptions of movie heroes.

When it works, a movie like Australia proceeds like a steamroller. It is physically big, and you move aside by conditioned reflex: you respond to a piano in a smoke-blackened bar playing "Waltzing Mathilda," the world's most poignant national anthem, and you don't choke when the beautiful brute Jackman says, "I mix with dingos, not duchesses." But this incredible continent deserves to be seen through some greater glass than just the reflection of old Hollywood movies.

Movie Times AUSTRALIA (PG-13; 150 min.), directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie et al., photographed by Mandy Walker and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, opens Wednesday, Nov. 26, countywide.

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