Australia is a big, grand epic that is powerful and beautiful...though somehow not quite perfect. The film is a stunningly cinematic feat that truly does feel like the natural progression for Baz Luhrmann, seven years after the overwhelming brilliance of Moulin Rouge!, his visionary musical--the film that set the "Musicals On Film" wave into motion...and still the best, most exuberantly cinematic movie musical of them all.
After such a towering feat, it feels appropriate for Luhrmann to take the artistic license to do something huge--after all, the filmmaking in Rouge made it feel huge, but it was actually much more intimate than the sprawling canvass that is the entire continent of Australia. Like most passion projects, Australia is sometimes a little too close to its maker for it to totally translate to the audience, but it is one of the more effective epic productions in recent years...far surpassing what should be called the recent Ridley Scott epics, to be sure.
The film tells a story of class, identity, and war in Australia, but at its core is the epic love story between the high-society woman who is learning to build a new life (Nicole Kidman) and the brutish, independent, lower-class hunk who doesn't want to be tied down (Hugh Jackman). The set-up is textbook epic material, but Luhrmann's visuals bring new vibrancy to a familiar genre, and the chemistry between the actors sells their romance. Kidman and Jackman are beautiful and talented performers, and they are very strong here, giving their best for the most powerful and respected director of their home country (though Jackman's power as a singer makes me wish Luhrmann would have thrown in one unapologetically pretentious musical number for the Tony winner to belt).
With Australia, it is clear that Luhrmann wanted to redefine the romantic epic in the same way he redefined the movie musical. And as a beautiful exercise in genre redefinition, Australia fulfills his goal. It is clearly an 'A-' movie. But there is that one tiny missing piece, that not-quite-definable magic element that leaves a small gap...the gap between "very good" and "great." You don't come by much more vibrant visuals than Luhrmann's, yet he seems more mannered and less unhindered than he has in the past. The story here is big, powerful, and effective, but it seems to have been manufactured by Luhrmann's keyboard rather than emerging from an innate place of passion. It seems to me that Luhrmann is trying a little too hard this time...that if he allowed himself to relax, either by giving himself room to breathe in the writing stage or taking additional time during the editing stage, that we would see all of what he intended. But if we cannot quite have that perfection, we do have a big, beautiful piece of filmmaking that does rank with the best achievements of the year--especially in a year where greatness is scarce across the board.
Australia is wonderful. But it could have been an unparalleled masterpiece.