Baz Luhrmann deserves credit for being daring—and for upping the dare with each movie. After 1992's affable Strictly Ballroom, he made a version of Romeo And Juliet that the MTV generation had been unwittingly conditioned to embrace, then returned with Moulin Rouge!, which put 19th-century melodrama, 20th-century music, broad comedy, and high tragedy into a supercollider that could just as easily have produced a black hole as the resulting transcendent fusion. Luhrmann traffics in theatrical artifice but still finds room for overwhelming emotion, a delicate balancing act that never finds footing in the historical epic Australia. It might be the genre itself that defeated him: Epics demand a you-are-there immediacy, but Luhrmann's at his best when working one step away from reality. And while there are gestures in that direction here, he mostly lets the sweep of history drag his characters behind it, kicking up a lot of sand without moving the earth.
Still, points for daring: Set in the years leading up to Japan's bombing of the Northern Territory city of Darwin, Luhrmann's film attempts to squeeze issues at the core of Australian identity into a storybook framework. A boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), whose mixed racial heritage makes him vulnerable to forcible government removal under the Aboriginal Protection Act, serves as the narrator, recounting the tale of Faraway Downs, a cattle ranch that's the lone holdout against the area's resident baron (Bryan Brown). After Faraway Downs' owner dies under mysterious circumstances, his regal English wife (Nicole Kidman) arrives to assume control, receiving a crash course in the ways of the country courtesy of a man known only as Drover (Hugh Jackman).
With the title acting as an imperative to tell a story that helps defines his home, Luhrmann possesses ambition as huge as the film's open country, but after a rough-and-tumble comedic opening, little directorial vision beyond his trademark frenetic pace remains. Even that feels out of place. Australia hurries to get nowhere, finding and losing momentum amidst the jutting cliffs and endless plains. Only one sequence, a long cattle drive through harsh terrain, works on its own terms. The rest alternates earnest grappling with Australia's troubled racial history, half-earned mysticism, and a surprisingly perfunctory romance between Jackman—charming as an Outback-sculpted man in his element—and Kidman, who never quite loses the cartoon Katharine Hepburn veneer of her character's first appearance. It almost goes without saying that the film looks gorgeous, but the filmmaking behind it feels unsure how to work on this grand a scale. Australia is big. But it never fills the screen.