There’s something so deliciously ludicrous about old-school spectacle that can make a viewer shut off his or her filtering mechanism and just exult in the over-the-topness of it all. It’s the sheer scope of everything from the sweeping vistas to the outsized emotions that makes us curl up on the sofa with “Giant” or “Gone with the Wind” over and over again.
And these days, nobody does “outsized” like Baz Luhrmann, who most recently juiced up both the musical and the tragic romance to heart-exploding intensity with “Moulin Rouge!” Now he’s back to give the business to romantic epics with “Australia,” a sprawling ode to his home country that throws kangaroos, didgeridoos, the outback, a cattle drive, Japanese air raids and Nicole Kidman into a slightly overboiled stew that’s never less than compelling. (Had he decided to call this one “Australia!” the exclamation point would have been fully deserved.)
Kidman stars as Lady Sarah Ashley, a fancy-pants British equestrienne and rich lady whose unfaithful husband has just died on the cattle station he owned in Australia. She makes the trip Down Under in the hopes of selling off the property, but winds up getting entangled in the fight to save it from evil cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown). This happens only after she loses most of her luggage and her upper-crust dignity following a two-day trip through the outback with the Drover (Hugh Jackman), a cattle-driving roustabout whose close relationship with Australia’s aborigines makes him something of an outcast among his fellow whites.
Sarah herself becomes embroiled with the aborigines after she gets to know young Nullah (the engaging Brandon Walters), a half-caste young boy whom the authorities wish to round up, as was the practice at the time. His grandfather King George (David Gulpilil of “Walkabout” fame) is unjustly accused of the murder of Sarah’s husband, but the wise old man winds up being an invaluable, if unseen, guide to Sarah, the Drover and Nullah on their travels.
And what travels they are — the first half of “Australia” is devoted to driving Sarah’s cattle halfway across the continent to Darwin in the hopes of beating Carney out for a lucrative government contact, while the second deals with the Japanese bombing of Darwin and our lead trio’s attempts to find each other through the rubble, the evacuations and the continuing nastiness of Carney’s son-in-law Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who starts the film as a nasty annoyance but blossoms into a full-fledged psychopathic villain by the last reel.
It took me a while to settle into the exaggerated sweep of “Australia,” with Kidman and Jackman being given archetypes rather than characters to play — together, they have all the chemistry of two walls colliding, but they’re such attractive walls you don’t mind. Still, when Lady Sarah vows they’ll get their cattle to Darwin first to keep the duplicitous Carney from winning, I got a little shiver down my spine that said, “I’m in.” And I was for the rest of the film’s 165 minutes.
“Australia” is a valentine not only to the nation itself but to its cinema, with the presence of old hands like Brown, Gulpilil and Jack Thompson and shout-outs to classics like “My Brilliant Career” and “We of the Never Never.” It’s as big and bold and unabashedly old-fashioned as anything since “Titanic,” and as with that film, you’ll forgive its excesses and revel in its sweep.