Early in Baz Luhrmann's Australia, one of the main characters says of his country: "this land has a strange power." And indeed, if one surveys the landscape of films about Australia, many of them (The Last Wave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Proposition) seem to express this sentiment: Australia is a nation of strange, captivating, haunting power. In his epic film about his native country, Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) affirms and exaggerates this Australian mythos, to spectacular effect. Indeed, his impressively rendered film has a "strange power" of its own.
This is a film of great ambition and artistic audacity. That the title is simply Australia tips us off to the intentions of Luhrmann: not necessarily to make the definitive film about the complicated country/continent, but to provide an over-the-top, grandiose, slightly-irreverent-but-ultimately-sincere explosion of cinema that hearkens back to the golden age of Hollywood epics.
Fittingly set in the late 1930s/early '40s (the Hollywood era it most recalls), as WWII encroaches on its northern coast, Australia has a relatively simple story for a film of such scope (and formidable length). It follows the prim, parasol-toting aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), as she comes to Australia from England to check in on her husband, who owns and runs the Faraway Downs cattle ranch in Northern Australia. Ashley finds her husband dead under suspicious circumstances, his ranch under threat of seizure by a rival cattle company. She enlists the help of a dashing, rugged cattle driver named Drover (Hugh Jackman), as well as the aboriginal helpers on the ranch, to keep Faraway Downs afloat and competitive in the wartime beef market. She forges a special connection with a young "half-caste" (half aborigine, half white) orphan boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who is also the film's cheeky narrator.
Before too long, melodramatic intrigue, sweeping romance, and bravura action ensues. Lady Ashley and Drover hate each other at first, but gradually fall in love (in a familiar, pleasing, "Indiana and Marion" sort of way). Meanwhile, a villain emergesNeil Fletcher (the excellent David Wenham, who played Faramir in the Lord of the Rings films)who is determined to ruin Lady Ashley, particularly because she is friendly to the natives and harbors little "half-caste" children like Nullah. At this segregated time in Australia's history, whites were the landowners, blacks (aborigines) were the help, and "half-castes" (usually the product of white men having their way with aborigine women) were the least desirable of all. These "unfortunate" byproducts of illicit interracial relationships were highly stigmatized and best kept out of sight. In the 1930s and '40s, mixed-race children were plucked from their indigenous communities and shipped to church missions or state institutions in efforts to re-educate them. These children became known as the "Stolen Generations."
On one level, Australia is a self-conscious examination of race. It's Nullah's tale of being an outcast, an in-between child searching for a home and a people: "Me half-caste, me 'creamy,' me belong to no one," he says. Indeed, while Nullah finds a temporary home and family with Lady Ashley and Drover, he also feels the pull of his indigenous heritage. His aboriginal grandfather (David Gulpilil), who is referred to as King George or simply "Magic Man," is always standing in the background, or up on a mountain surveying the landscape, singing or chanting in deep, magical ways. Nullah feels and understands things from King George that his white friends Ashley and Drover cannot. He's truly torn between two worlds.