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The not-so-powerful Oz

The Baltimore Sun

Hugh Jackman, a resourceful, good-humored star with the Old School knack for playing rugged and courtly, has just been named People's Sexiest Man Alive. Nicole Kidman, who can be an imposing woman of action (see the thriller Dead Calm), has become a critical favorite for her daring and accomplishment. For my money she was the Sexiest Woman Alive, if only for a few brief moments, in the Baltimore-shot Invasion.

These gifted Australians should have been sensational together as lovers in the sprawling Australia. Without the material to make their intimacy tingle or their passion explode, they seem what they are in real life - just good friends, albeit here, friends with benefits.

And Australia, set in Australia's Northern Territory, a land of romance and adventure, should have been a terrific epic, but instead is a lavish family time-killer. If Disney still made live-action holiday spectaculars, this could have been a Disney film.

Unfolding from 1939 to 1942, it contains episodes of sweeping adventure, such as a half-dozen drovers heading up a 1,500-head cattle drive, a Japanese attack on the port city of Darwin, and the daring rescue of dozens of orphans from a bombed-out island mission.

Yet director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) is so stylized and pictorial, he doesn't deliver the goods with any surge and thrust. He lets you settle in your seat - he rarely draws you to the edge of it. He produces digitally enhanced calendar art. It's impossibly pretty, whether arid or lush. It's also devoid of inspiration.

Australia wants to be a national anthem of a film. With a can-do, democratic Aussie spirit, English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) and her right-hand man and lover, the Drover (Jackman), wind up rescuing and running the ranch her murdered husband left her.

The movie highlights their respect for the aborigines and their care for a half-caste boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters); they're meant to embody the spirit of modern Australia. They're just as gritty yet vastly more humane and caring than their nemesis, the voracious old cattleman, King Carney (Bryan Brown), and his vile lieutenant Neil Fletcher (David Wenham).

Fletcher never acknowledges that he's Nullah's father. Lady Ashley and the Drover protect Nullah from the authorities who round up natives of mixed blood and send them to white missions with the aim of schooling - and breeding - the aborigine right out of them. (For a serious treatment of the subject, see Rabbit-Proof Fence.)

Despite these charged ingredients, watching Australia is like walking through a gallery of classic movie posters while the originals unwind in a continuous loop in your brain. The Wizard of Oz provides many of the themes as well as the theme song. Gone With the Wind kicks in half the relationships and set pieces. Bits and pieces of Red River, Giant, Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca and dozens of others - Cattle Queen of Montana, anyone? - find their way into the grab-bag.

Kidman's Lady Ashley spends the first third as buttoned-up as Katharine Hepburn's virginal missionary in The African Queen, until she finds that driving 1,500 head of cattle, especially in the company of a virile, unpretentious pro like the Drover, is as thrilling as Hepburn found shooting the rapids with Humphrey Bogart.

When Lady Ashley makes good on her late husband's ambition to establish a ranch called Faraway Downs as a great cattle-provider in the Northern Territory, she's suddenly Scarlett saving Tara in GWTW. The Drover becomes her Rhett Butler, disdainful of propriety yet more charismatic and authentic than any proper gents.

Early on she teaches Nullah to sing "Over the Rainbow." The tune gets reprised repeatedly on harmonica. At the first of many anti-climaxes, Lady Ashley, now simply Sarah, says "Let's go home," and the Drover responds, "I hear there's no place like it."

Where is home for Luhrmann, the co-writer as well as the director? The press notes assure us that he grew up in New South Wales, where his family briefly ran a movie theater. I'd guess the theater was more of a home to him than the family farm or gas station. Luhrmann overworks the connection between Oz as a nickname for Australia and Oz as the land of Munchkins and great escapism. I've never been Down Under, but I bet I could have come up with a better way of clinching the sequence when Lady Ashley goes native than having her say, "Oh, crikey."

Australia is mostly about other movies. If you know those films, you wish you were seeing Giant or The Big Country instead. If you don't know them, you must wonder why so many potentially rich set-ups emerge as cartoons. That's what happens with reproductions that are generations removed from originals: They lose their detail and nuance, and even their life-blood.

Kidman signed on without reading the script. She must have put her brain on hold when she did read it. (The final screenplay is credited to Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan.) She has never looked as unattractive as she does in the first hour. Wrapped up tight in aristocratic finery, she seems uncomfortable in her own taut skin. Looking like a digital human in an early 3D cartoon, she moves in a weird pinched strut and talks in a snobbish screech.

Jackman at least plays a human being, albeit a generic one. Handy with horses and fellow bar-fighters, he's one of nature's noblemen. He still needs a real woman to play off his virility. It takes forever for Kidman to become even a viable imitation.

The bit players fare better with their hand-me-down parts. Jack Thompson does the lovable Thomas Mitchell sort of alcoholic to a juicy turn as the dissipated accountant Kipling Flynn. You wish the too-little-seen Brown, who brims over with appetite, remained the movie's main villain instead of Wenham's weaselly Fletcher. And David Gulpilil, as an aborigine leader and mystic named King George, is as transcendent here as he was 37 years ago in Walkabout.

You can tell why Sarah and the Drover fall in love with Nullah; Walters is beguiling. His narration, with its pungent argot, does more than anything else in the film to draw you in. But the movie reduces aboriginal mores to sorcery, and Nullah to a sorcerer's apprentice.

Luhrmann steals good ideas, fair ideas and terrible ideas - anything that once moved him when he was a little boy. He's turned Australia into a more-than-you-can-eat buffet of colorful kitsch.

Australia

(20th Century Fox) Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Bryan Brown. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language. Time 155 minutes.

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