It's never a good sign when the projectionist tells you to pack a lunch before watching a movie. This happened to me when I went to go see Australia, a big slice of epic pie from Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann. I took my friend's words with a grain of salt, since I dug Luhrmann's crazy revisionist musical and assumed the man would employ similarly stylistic flair to his latest project. Unfortunately, a rude awakening awaited me as Australia's beginning credits rolled. What begins as a plucky tribute to the sweeping epics of yore soon sours up and turns into a bloated example of melodramatic storytelling at its most taxing.
Australia starts off in the early days of World War II. Feisty socialite Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has had enough of her absentee husband, making the lengthy trek from England to Darwin, Australia to check on the cattle ranch he's become so engrossed in. But not only has Sarah's husband bit the big one, but local baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) is hell-bent on claiming the ranch and completing his stranglehold on the Australian beef market. Of course, Sarah isn't going to take this sitting down, so after recruiting a rugged cattle driver known as Drover (Hugh Jackman), she makes the perilous journey to move her herd from the ranch to Darwin. Time, the elements, and Carney's lackeys are all working against Sarah, but she tries her hardest to persevere in spite of it all, even falling hopelessly in love with the dashing Drover in the process.
I understand perfectly what Australia is going for. It's a modern-day ode to classic Hollywood epics that focused on the indominability of the human spirit, even in the harshest of conditions. As it turns out, the indominability of the human spirit is about as interesting as watching cheese age, or at least that's how it is in this endeavor. It's not that Australia is without ambition, since it shoots for the moon and beyond, convinced of its own ability to lug a pretty hefty thematic load. The trouble is that the movie overestimates its own strength and depends way too much on the story's backdrop to carry it to the finish line. It's a romance at heart, presented as a love for the ages that endures all kinds of hardships, a la Gone with the Wind. But the relationship Luhrmann serves viewers is just a few shades more convincing than the anemic affair currently making teeny-boppers swoon in Twilight. Instead, Luhrmann focuses most of his energy on playing up the film's spectacle angle, which ends up making Australia look fantastic but ultimately feel emotionally hollow.