Just six months ago, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia was a movie event in the making: the return of a visionary director seven years after his triumph with Moulin Rouge; an expensive and long-in-production epic starring two movie stars; maybe even an Oscar contender.
Now Australia arrives on DVD half-forgotten at best, potential new punchline at worst. Its own star, Nicole Kidman, went on record saying she felt embarrassed by her performance (though the quote was taken, par for the course, out of its original context, about her confessed inability to watch herself onscreen without feeling self-conscious; the Australia performance that so unsettled her was also apparently one of the only she’s seen straight through in recent years).
In any case, it’s unfortunate that Australia would become an albatross for Kidman, because Baz Luhrmann is just about the only director who understands how to use her as a movie star. Kidman is a terrific actress typically at her least comfortable in splashy, big-budget productions—she feels more at home with the unsparing details of Birth or Margot at the Wedding. But in both Moulin Rouge and Australia, the constant winking thaws out that chilly intensity—Luhrmann’s blatant artificiality gives Kidman a strategy to latch onto, and she loosens up.
Playing Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat protecting her late husband’s Australian land, allows Kidman to ride a horse with a stiff upper lip, shriek with outrage, get dusty on a cattle drive, and get kissed in the rain by the rugged Australian individual known only as Drover (Hugh Jackman). In a sly nod to her musical past with Luhrmann, she even tries singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with hilarious incompetence and gusto. She adapts surprisingly well into Luhrmann’s world, where men throw wild punches, women shriek and swoon, and sidekicks turn red from their drinking and mugging.
The problem, though, is that Australia blends well into this world too, even as it tries to represent a departure from Luhrmann’s “red curtain trilogy”. It begins with less frenzy than Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge—the shots are longer and more sweeping, the colors lush but not so loud—but doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself. Luhrmann adjusts his speed and volume, but not his tone, fusing campy comedy, old-fashioned romanticism, intentional artifice, and emotional sincerity—here applied to a sweeping western of sorts rather than a lavish musical.
This isn’t bad, exactly, but it makes Australia more of an entertaining half-measure than a movie to love wholeheartedly; it’s a fleeting romance that wants to be a torrid affair. Though the whip-cracking and cattle-driving, as well as Jackman’s winking machismo, bring to mind all sorts of old movies, Luhrmann unwittingly produces a different sort of retro entertainment: one that recalls the kind of splashy historical epics that might’ve been made in the wake of Titanic‘s success. This one plays as a missing link between the brilliant filmmaking of the James Cameron movie and the unabashed awfulness of Pearl Harbor—but then Luhrmann can turn bad taste into genius and delirious smash cuts into poetry, so any comparisons to Michael Bay, especially put in terms of restraint and/or historical accuracy, are either perfectly apt or liable to make your head explode.
Faced with widespread indifference, Australia‘s DVD release is now a monument to the speed at which a studio can turn on a prestige pet project: the disc has exactly two brief deleted scenes, neither of much consequence, detailing more early-movie farm conflict between Kidman and the Australians. It’s possible that Luhrmann simply used most of his footage on the overstuffed final film, but it’s hard to know without, say, a director’s commentary or even cursory behind-the-scenes segments.
The film is left to speak for itself, and while Moulin Rouge used its brazen, heartfelt campiness to sing the wild potential of the movie musical, Australia is more of a lovely speech about not too much in particular.