Courtesy of JAMES FISHER / 20th Century Fox
The Drover (Hugh Jackman) and Sarah (Nicole Kidman) are plunged into upheaval, adventure and romance beyond their wildest imaginations.

Review: 'Australia'

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Overlong drama set in the 1930s Outback earns epic tag for all the wrong reasons.

Any movie that costs $130 million and has 1,500 head of cattle and Nicole Kidman traipsing in her finery through the Outback and an Aboriginal shaman plus Hugh Jackman getting the best of it in a bar fight can't be all bad. Right?

Wrong. This almost three-hour epic keeps shooting for the stars but usually crash-lands with a thud. Someone should have told co-writer/director Baz Luhrmann that just because you call your movie "Australia" doesn't mean you've created a national epic.

Kidman plays the stultifyingly prim Lady Sarah Ashley, who arrives in Aussieland from England in the fall of 1939. She's there to track down the whereabouts of her philandering husband on Faraway Downs, their rundown estate in the remote Northern Territory, which has been overrun with surly cattlemen and their Aboriginal underlings.

Jackman plays the Drover, a cowboy who knows his way around a steer. This makes him the ideal companion for anything with hooves, which, alas Lady Sarah lacks. When she discovers her husband has been murdered and meanies have their designs on the estate, she employs the Drover to herd the 1,500 head to the Darwin port where the Australian military awaits to bail her out. Stirred into this mix is 11-year-old Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-caste Aborigine orphan who is attempting to elude capture by whites who would forcibly transfer him to a missionary-run settlement designed for such children. (This part of the movie is based on the so-called Stolen Generations tragedy, which was dramatized far more effectively in Philip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence.")

Nullah, shadowed by his shaman grandfather King George (David Gulpilil), narrates the movie. Better him than Lady Sarah. The Sarah-Drover sparring sessions are a dismal recycling of the Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn confabs from "The African Queen." Luhrmann doesn't stop there. Strewn like confetti throughout "Australia" are homages (filches?) from everything from "The Searchers" to "Gone with the Wind" to "Out of Africa."

Here's a cardinal rule of moviemaking: Never quote from a movie that's better than the one you're making.

Walters is a cute kid but looks as if he stepped out of a Benetton ad. Jackman looks as if he stepped out of a roadshow production of "Oklahoma!" Kidman is even more glacial than usual, and not even the Outback sun can defrost her. The CGI work is very spotty – the cattle in particular look as if they were concocted in a visual-effects laboratory, and the same is sometimes true of the people. The film also seems to end at least four times, which is three times too many. Better yet, it never should have started. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for a scene of sensuality, brief strong language, and some violence.)

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