World War Two may be breaking out in Europe, but in Australia life continues pretty much as normal, as it does for the half-white, half Aborigine Nullah (Brandon Walters), the illegitimate son of cattle herder Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), a man who wants nothing to do with him but have him rounded up with the rest of the native Australian children so they may be assimilated into white culture. Nullah has thus far managed to escape the law, and prefers to accompany his "magic man" grandfather King George (David Gulpilil) as he roams the Outback, but one day the boss of the farm, Lord Ashley, is murdered - could King George have committed the crime?
There's a lot of plot to get through with director Baz Luhrmann's Australia, a blatant attempt to hark back to old time movie epics with a Southern twist, in fact enough goes on here for about three storylines at least. This film even has a point about two-thirds of the way through where it would have sensibly been a good place to stop, but Luhrmann carried on with what some regarded as a grand cinematic folly to rope in the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese, apparently oblivious to the concerns that the audience may or may not have had enough by that stage. And yet that's the very reason that those who liked this were so passionate about it.
For others, they couldn't help but notice that the swooning romance at its heart was more the stuff of soap opera than solid gold classic, and came across as an "updating" of The African Queen relationship, certainly for its initial half where we get the lovers not seeing eye to eye. Those lovers were the wife of the deceased Lord Ashley, Sarah (Nicole Kidman), a prim and proper Englishwoman who veers dangerously close to parody as memories of Joyce Grenfell unwittingly surface, and the Lord's head cattle drover, known imaginatively as, er, Drover (Hugh Jackman), a plain-spoken slab of beefcake who has a sensitive side and abhors racism.
That last trait is important, because Luhrmann is intent on making up for the centuries of ill-treatment of the Aborigines at the hands of the whites. Little Nullah encapsulates the hopes of an entire nation when he symbolises the fruitful meeting of minds between the two races, which is too much for the character to bear, and the mysticism that follows him and his grandfather around appears to have strayed in from another film. But that's the tone of this, throw everything Australian that you can find at it in the hope that it will all cohere into a truly emotional experience - we even get Rolf Harris contributing his wobble board on the soundtrack, and there are a host of familiar Aussie faces in the cast, some in tiny roles.
There are allusions to a far earlier Austrailan film, The Overlanders, which also featured the war and a plot involving cattle herding, but that was not enough for this film as the journey of the livestock is paralleled with the journey in The Wizard of Oz, which includes a bizarre sequence where Sarah tries to explain that film to Nullah and halfheartedly sings "Over the Rainbow" to boot. Luhrmann is well-versed in his movies, which explains why this never convinces as a genuine tale, in spite of his efforts to plant it in actual historical events, as it feels too much like the gloss of the silver screen rather than gritty real life; it's even a little camp in places. Still, if Australia doesn't quite live up to its ambitions, you cannot fault it for trying, and if you have the stamina it does reward you with some glorious imagery. Music by David Hirschfelder.
Australian writer and director with an ebullient, emotion-packed sensibility for his films. He started out in the business as an actor, appearing for a spell in his homeland's soap behemoth A Country Practice before the ballroom dancing experiences of his parents prompted him to create the stage play and later film Strictly Ballroom. The movie was an international success and took him to Hollywood where he reinvigorated Shakespeare for teenagers in Romeo + Juliet and fashioned a musical tragedy in Moulin Rouge!, which either swept you up in its swoons and glitter or gave you a splitting headache. With three big hits under his belt, Luhrmann turned back to his origins and would-be blockbuster Australia, but it was judged a disappointment. His long planned a version of The Great Gatsby was released to mixed response in 2013, but was one of his biggest hits regardless.