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James Fisher/20th Century Fox

Epic down under

Movies | Big, busy and sometimes confused movie for a big continent

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

If you really want to, you can hate Baz Luhrmann's modest little $130 million art film Australia. You can scoff at the film's shaky logistics, at the miscasting of Nicole Kidman, and at the worryingly broad characters (yes, the Asian cook really is named Sing Song). Or you can enjoy the movie on its own terms-as a sort of cross between Far and Away and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nobody will accuse Australia of being too cerebral, but its epic scope and swashbuckling heroics are just too bighearted to be disappointing.

Australia follows a cattle rancher's wife named Sarah Ashley across the outback as she salvages her murdered husband's business. She starts by firing crooked farmhand Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) for hitting a half-aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), driving the cattle herself, and pursuing a romance with widowed cattle herder Drover (Hugh Jackman), all under the watchful narration of Nullah himself.

Christians will wince at the sad but in some cases accurate depiction of missionaries who participated in the shameful separation of racially mixed kids from their aboriginal mothers in order to "breed the savage out of them," as one character indelicately puts it. To his credit, Luhrmann includes on the periphery a young priest who genuinely cares about the children.

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The film's PG-13 rating covers occasional swearing, a fatal stampede, and nudity, including a sex scene. Sarah and Drover's relationship is not exactly a marriage, which is likely to cause kids some confusion, but then, much of life in the early days of the outback was ad hoc, with all the attendant problems.

Australia is a busy, confused movie, and its director is not entirely successful in trying to leave behind the schmaltzy style of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, so it's surprising how good it sometimes is.

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