By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — Overlong and self-indulgent, Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” a homage to epic adventure films, feels like a slog through the outback itself.
And yet it can be a visually wondrous journey, one with striking visuals that will take your breath away again and again. No one ever doubted the director’s capabilities as an inventive aesthetic stylist — this is the man, after all, who dared to set the balcony scene in a swimming pool in his revisionist “Romeo + Juliet,” who turned “Moulin Rouge!” into a dizzying dance of light and color, complete with Elton John and Nirvana songs.
Here, he focuses his considerable talents on a more traditional genre: the old-fashioned, wartime romance. The result is grandiose and dazzling, repetitive and predictable.
Set in pre-World War II, “Australia” stars Nicole Kidman as the British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley, who travels to the Northern Territory ranch of Faraway Downs to confront the absent husband she suspects of philandering. The prim Lady Ashley is appalled by the rough-and-tumble life she finds there and Kidman plays her as more than a little awkward, which is good for some laughs, but she also gives the character some sweetness and vulnerability.
She immediately clashes with the roguishly charming Drover (Hugh Jackman in full-on Sexiest-Man-Alive mode), who works on the ranch. Luhrmann, who wrote the script with Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan, is clearly aiming to replicate the kind of chemistry Bogart and Hepburn enjoyed in “The African Queen” with their antagonistically flirty banter. The burgeoning relationship infuses the early part of “Australia” with a goofy, cartoonish energy that eventually gives way to unabashed sentimentality.
Once Lady Ashley discovers her husband is dead, it’s no big shocker that she finds herself falling in love with the place, and with the Drover (and really, how could she resist?). It also comes as no surprise that, after expressing zero fondness for children, she experiences untapped maternal instincts for the impish half-Aboriginal boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), who is adorable but also a bit of an unfortunate racial stereotype. Nullah, our narrator, speaks in a broken English that’s supposed to be humorous but is merely annoying. He also functions as an all-powerful being — the mythical, “magical Negro” — in cuter, tinier form.
Luhrmann hammers home the theme of Aboriginal mysticism, but he also returns to a wedged-in “Wizard of Oz” analogy ad nauseam; you will never want to hear “Over the Rainbow” again after seeing this movie.
But “Australia” may inspire you to make your own trip Down Under. With the beautifully parched desert landscape, the pinky-purple twilight on the scrub-brushed mountains, the sprawling overhead shots of lush hills and waterfalls and the streaks of white sunlight through the trees, Luhrmann has made an elaborate promotional video for the place he calls home.
“Australia,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language. Running time: 155 minutes. Two stars out of four.