'Australia' overcomes a slow beginning

"Australia" is a wildly over the top look at Down Under, about what we might have expected from Aussie director Baz Luhrmann.

Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") grew up in the rural Australia that forms the backdrop for his new epic, but he also grew up with a head full of movies, and shamelessly borrows from classic Hollywood films to tell this sprawling, melodramatic story of his homeland.

Some patience is required, since the movie is long, and does not begin well - "Australia" opens with a lengthy comic prologue that has the disadvantage of not being funny.

Nicole Kidman is stuffy English nobleman Lady Ashley (the first of many "Gone with the Wind" references) who arrives in the unruly Outback to take stock of her husband's failing cattle ranch.

She ends up in the company of dashing, untamed cattle driver Drover (Hugh Jackman), and their extensive "meet cute" scenes convey the required attraction-repulsion, but are far too intent on elbowing the ribs of an audience that is not laughing.

Lady Ashley discovers that to save the ranch, she needs to get her cattle to the port city of Darwin, past a gantlet of competing ranchers. She needs Drover, he needs money, and they form a reluctant partnership that yields expected romantic sparks (Jackman finally gets the cornball romantic lead he deserves).

This narrative - wicked cattle barons, vulnerable women, heroic loner - will be instantly familiar to anyone with a grounding in American westerns, and would have been thin concept on which to construct a movie this ambitious.

But the real love story in "Australia" - the one that saves the movie - develops among Lady Ashley, Drover and the orphaned Aboriginal boy who becomes the third piece in an emerging family triangle.

His name is Nullah (untrained Australian actor Brandon Walters), and he is half Anglo, half Aborigine. Nullah is a wild child of the Outback, but is sought by authorities who capture and educate half-blood children thought to be capable of being successfully anglicized.

This was official policy in Australia for decades (known as the stolen generations), and as soon as Luhrmann adopts it as a theme, his movie gains in stature.

And emotional resonance. Kidman and Jackman know that Luhrmann is delivering much of the material with a wink, and they play along, but young Walters is sincere and innocent and almost entirely winning as plucky little Nullah.

This is crucial, since Luhrmann's grandiose movie style places much of the burden for carrying "Australia" on Walters' tiny shoulders. For instance: Luhrmann expands on the idea of Oz as a nickname for Australia. A drive-in screening of "Wizard of Oz" yields a nice sequence, and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" becomes a motif linked to Aboriginal culture's use of singing as a tool for hunting and navigation.

Dorothy's song becomes Nullah's (and the soundtrack's), playing a crucial role in Lady Ashley's bid to find the lost boy during the 1942 Japanese attack on Darwin, an event that gives the movie its monumental and mostly successful third act. *

Produced by Baz Luhrmann, directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ron Harwood, Richard Flanagan, music by David Hirschfelder, distributed by 20th Century Fox.


Australia

Directed by Baz Luhrmann. With Bryan Brown, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Jack Thompson, David Wenham. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some violence, a scene of sensuality, and brief strong language).