Up to now, no movie was big enough to hold director Baz Luhrmann's overflowing emotions -- not the maniacal jukebox of "Moulin Rouge!," not even Shakespeare's young lovers in "Romeo + Juliet."
With "Australia," a grand epic set in Luhrmann's native country, Luhrmann finally should have found a subject as big as his use-every-crayon-in-the-box sensibility. Instead, the opposite happens: The massive panoramas of wild Australia suddenly make Luhrmann's wild flourishes look puny.
The story begins in September 1939. While the rest of the world goes to war, English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (played by Nicole Kidman) flies to Australia -- using a retro-cool spinning globe, as in "Casablanca" -- to find out what's happened with her husband's cattle station, Faraway Downs. She discovers that her husband has been killed, and Faraway Downs is threatened by the beef baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), who holds a monopoly over most of the Northern Territory.
After watching the cattle station's foreman, Fletcher (David Wenham), abuse his Aboriginal mistress (Ursula Yovich) and their half-caste son, Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), Lady Sarah becomes determined to rescue Faraway Downs by driving 1,500 head of cattle north to the port city of Darwin. To do that, she enlists the aid of The Drover (Hugh Jackman), a rugged cowboy who refuses to settle down. Of course, the rough-hewn Drover and the porcelain-fine Lady Sarah will disagree -- and, because Luhrmann is such a lover of classic movie tropes, you know what will happen next.
The thing about "Australia" is that you always know what will happen next, because Luhrmann (writing with "Collateral's" Stuart Beattie, "The Pianist's" Ronald Harwood and Aussie novelist Richard Flanagan) employs all the old movie clichés: lovers from opposite sides of society, underdogs battling corrupt power and racial prejudice, set against the backdrop of cataclysmic history -- in this case, the Japanese bombing of Darwin, not long after Pearl Harbor.
For much of "Australia's" running time, Luhrmann gets away with it. He can burnish even the oldest cliché into something shiny and new. The sweeping views of the Outback and of Jackman's pecs are equally stunning, and we're swept along with the whole enterprise. You even nod with approval at Luhrmann's audacity for cribbing from "The Wizard of Oz" in his depiction of his Land of Oz, Australia, as a magical place over the rainbow.
Somewhere after the two-hour mark, with 45 minutes to go, you wonder if Luhrmann can tame this beast. In the end he can't, and Australia proves itself a land too big to be tamed by a mere moviemaker.
Director Baz Luhrmann has trouble reining himself in with this old-fashioned epic.
Where » Theaters everywhere
When » Opens Wednesday
Rating » PG-13 for some violence, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language
Running time » 165 minutes