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Throw Another Scene on the Barbie

“Moulin Rouge” director whips up a shamelessly mythic national epic in “Australia.”



Early in “Australia,” director Baz Luhrmann's epic love letter to both Hollywood and his homeland, a snooty British lady on her first trip to the outback exults in the kangaroos hopping alongside the beat-up truck she's in, only to have her holiday mood spoiled when one of them is brought down with a shot fired by her guides. They promptly throw the roo's remains on the barbie. It's a bracing bit of naughty iconoclasm very much out of keeping with the loopy yet disarmingly earnest set pieces that constitute this overstuffed spectacle of spectacles.

Two movies rolled into one — the first a Western, the second a World War II picture — “Australia,” which clocks in at a little shy of three hours, is of course mostly nonsense from start to finish. But then one doesn't approach a movie from the creator of “Moulin Rouge” (2001) looking for spiritual guidance or even for clues about how things really are here on Planet Earth. What Luhrmann serves up instead is pure cattle-rustling, bomb-dropping, lip-locking sensation, unencumbered by such workaday banalities as plausibility, character or logic. You want to roll your eyes, but by the end your wonderment at Luhrmann's inextinguishable enthusiasm for hokum starts to break you down and win you over.

Time was when showmen could concoct a shamelessly mythic national epic out of movie magic and call it “Gone With the Wind.” Those days, as Luhrmann seems wistfully to acknowledge, are gone forever. Now a cinematic national myth must come bundled with a quantum of shame. All great nations begin in crime, and this “Australia” acknowledges by handing over the narration to a mixed-race child, Nullah (Brandon Walters), whose Aborigine mother has been used as a plaything by a rapacious white cattleman (David Wenham). As the quaint, scene-setting text scrolling before our eyes tells us, he belongs to Australia's “stolen generations,” native children who were whisked off by missionaries, the better to prepare them for their subordinate place in society and, later, heaven.

But Nullah's role in the movie is not to cast doubt on the white man's right — nay, duty! — to bring the beef industry and its junior partner, civilization, to the wilderness. Instead, he's there to provide a tender, tear-moistened link between the principal players in the drama: one rough, a prickly Aussie drover (Hugh Jackman); the other smooth, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a displaced Brit whose ranch is the threatened Tara on which, the movie seems to suggest, the fate of the future nation depends.

But in spite of the implicit patriotism of the whole enterprise, Luhrmann is not the man to let an idea — even the idea of his country — get in the way of his bread-and-butter business of overwhelming us with sweeping emotional gestures and grandly swooping cameras.

Amazingly, this is the first Australian feature film to depict the 188-airplane raid by Japan on the port city of Darwin in 1942. But unlike such corresponding American films as “From Here to Eternity” or “Tora Tora Tora,” “Australia” seldom ventures into those muddled waters where individuals merge with the nation and, to coin a phrase, the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans. In Luhrmann's cinematic economy, Lady Ashley gasping at her drover's rippling muscles is every bit as momentous as her gasping at the results of a bombing run.

On the other hand, love of country can pull most affectingly at the heartstrings, and so naturally “Australia” goes in for it, in the same spirit in which it goes in for star-crossed lovers and endangered, big-eyed children. In the splendor of a final sequence setting national treasures Kidman and Jackman against the somber majesty of the landscape, every shot all but cries out to be engraved on an Aussie banknote, even as the soundtrack swells with the sonorities not of “Waltzing Matilda,” but of English composer Edward Elgar's “Enigma” Variations.

If you find that last musical detail incongruous, you haven't surrendered to the zany, old-school magpie-ism of Golden-Age Hollywood or Luhrmann at his most irresistible. You may hate yourself in the morning, or even by the time you get to the parking lot, but if the sniffles and eye-dabbing in the theater where I saw “Australia” are any indication, surrender you will. (PG-13) 165 min. HHHII S


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