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Australia starts off like it’s going to be a fanciful, marvelous epic on “Bazoids” but after the first half-hour it settles into a more mainstream style while still hitting on the familiar Baz Luhrmann themes of life and love.

Stolen Generations

Fine performances polish off the epic Australia
Fine performances polish off the epic Australia

In the early going of this 165-minute cinematic page-turner, Drover (Hugh Jackman, X-Men) explains what it’s all about in a beautifully succinct fashion. The only thing a person really owns is their story and he’s simply trying to live a good one.

In this case, the story involves a prudish Brit “Sheila” named Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!), an Aborigine boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters in a remarkable debut), and cattle. Lots of cattle.

Of course, there’s also a bad guy to generate intrigue and antagonize the lives of those three protagonists. Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, also in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!) is really good at being easy to hate.

Remember: It’s 1939 Australia, a time and a place wherein adventure and romance were a way of life. Comparisons to Gone with the Wind are easy and inevitable, particularly since the main theatrical poster seems to pluck Sarah and Drover and put them right in the GWTW poster like some kind of carnival cutout.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Lady Sarah ventures down to Australia from England in order to check on her husband and the family’s property, a cattle ranch named Faraway Downs. No sooner does she arrive than things turn ugly. Her husband’s been killed, allegedly by an Aborigine named King George.

Should Faraway Downs be sold? What about all the missing cattle, the unbranded ones that are being steered over to the competition, the Carney Cattle Co.? Maybe matters would be easier to resolve if it weren’t for that nasty Neil Fletcher. He’s hell-bent on taking control of the ranch; it’s his entitlement, as he sees it. Generations of his family have worked the ranch, after all.

As the story unfolds, Sarah sheds her hoity-toity upbringing and gradually turns into a fairly rugged cattle rancher and humanitarian.

All the while, one key theme runs throughout the story: Just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean it should be that way.

There’s No Place Like Home

Australia is by no means a perfect movie.

The biggest fault is a long, awkward subplot involving an unlikely group of cattle herders: a drunk, a boy, an Aborigine woman, a Chinese cook, Drover, Drover’s Aborigine friend, and Sarah. Their mission is to bring the cattle up to Darwin for sale and thereby break Carney’s meat monopoly, but they’re confounded by the efforts of Neil and his henchmen.

Cattle-wrangling is an awkward, unwieldy affair to put on film, even when it involves hordes of CGI livestock. Throw in some Aboriginal mysticism as King George leads the rag-tag gang through the outback and it’s an odd bit of storytelling that’s hard to connect with on an emotional level. It’s interesting at times, but it’s hard to get invested in the action.

However, when it comes to emotions, Luhrmann manages to pull himself out of the big hole that monumental sequence creates and he goes on to create a wholly captivating and engrossing second half. As the final 80-or-so minutes unspool, the characters become more compelling and Luhrmann’s efforts to weave together all the epic elements he was setting up, the elements of love, loyalty, racism, and sexism, lead to one terrific finale.

The third act works particularly well thanks in large part to the great performances turned in by Jackman and Kidman, but it’s 12-year-old Brandon Walters who positively steals the show. As I’ve said before, the mark of a truly talented, masterful director is when a terrific, emotionally resonant and real performance is nurtured out of someone that young.

By that definition alone, Luhrmann is a truly talented, masterful director.

The Searchers

With a production budget somewhere around $150 million, an amount not all that overblown considering the scope of the movie, it can be said that at the very least Luhrmann makes sure every dollar — American or Australian — shows up onscreen. The movie is always nice to look at, although the weakest link in that regard would be the film’s CGI-heavy special effects.

When it comes to something like World War II fighter craft, there’s nothing like the real thing, or at least models of the real thing. Many of the special effects in Australia are too devoid of heft, of reality, and they take a smidge away from the experience. The problem is the same, regardless if the subject is a horde of marauding Japanese fighter planes or a herd of cattle run amuck. CGI has its place, but not in Australia.

Aside from that, there’s a lot of gorgeous imagery to behold and visuals that serve as a veritable highlight reel of epics past, including Gone with the Wind and The Searchers. The Wizard of Oz also figures heavily, both as a movie playing at the local cinema and as the source of the song — Somewhere Over the Rainbow — that hauntingly, movingly serves as the theme song for the lead characters. Each has a dream and a story to tell and for each that song serves as something like an anthem.

As for all those rumors surrounding a last-minute ending switcheroo, there’ve also been reports of as many as six different endings in various stages of contemplation or production during filming. The final ending works remarkably well.