David Ansen: 'Australia' Is Shamelessly Entertaining

Baz Luhrmann is a magpie with heart. In his epic romantic adventure "Australia," he borrows from everybody and everywhere. It's a love story, a Western, a World War II saga, a social-conscience drama and a remix of every classic Old Hollywood grand gesture ever committed to film. When the haughty English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) descends on the vast, remote Faraway Downs estate owned by her errant—and freshly murdered—husband, visions of Elizabeth Taylor in "Giant" and Katharine Hepburn in "The African Queen" come to mind. When she hooks up with a wild, untamed cattle driver called The Drover (Hugh Jackman) to lead her herd on a treacherous cross-country trek to Darwin, it's as if he were channeling "Red River" and John Ford and "Lawrence of Arabia." "Australia" is a shameless—and shamelessly entertaining—pastiche. It works because Luhrmann, a true believer in movie-movie magic, stamps it all with the force of his own extravagant, generous personality.

The director has abandoned the hyperkinetic editing style of "Moulin Rouge" and "Romeo + Juliet," but not the larger-than-life emotions. His wisest touch is to narrate the sprawling story through the eyes of the young half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), who becomes a surrogate son to the childless Lady Ashley and the un-housebroken Drover. Nullah lives in fear of being taken by the government from his real mother to be "re-educated" (i.e., turned white) in a mission school: the racist official policy that was the subject of "Rabbit-Proof Fence." The meshing of social outrage and romantic adventure is surprisingly seamless. Kidman seems to blossom under Luhrmann's direction: she's funny, warm and charming, and the erotic charge between her and the gruff, hunky Jackman is delicious. In a solemn season, "Australia's" bold, kitschy, unapologetic artifice is a welcome respite.