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AUSTRALIA
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenhan, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil, Brandon Walters
Director:  Baz Luhrmann
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  165 Minutes
Release Date:  March 3, 2009

“I sing you to me.”

“And I will hear you, my darling.”

Film ***

Australia is, at its heart, a good old fashioned epic western and period piece set at the outbreak of the second world war.  There are cowboys, cattle drives, bombings, crooked deals and romances, and a harsh, moving look at racism set against it all.

Until 1973, children in Australia who were half white and half aborigine were rounded up by the government to “breed the black out of them”.  They were called the stolen generations, and one such boy is at the heart of this movie.  His name is Nullah (Walters), and it is his voice that narrates the story.

As it begins, Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) is arriving from England to inquire after her husband, who had lofty dreams of establishing a successful cattle ranch called Faraway Downs and competing against the man who ran the beef industry, King Carny (Brown).  But when she reaches the farm, she finds her husband dead, and Carny making a less-than-generous offer to buy her land and let her return home.

But she believes she can carry out her husband’s dream, despite her head ranch hand Fletcher (Wenham) having other thoughts.  On her side is The Drover (Jackman), a cattleman who isn’t quite convinced that he, Sarah and a small group can lead her cows across the harsh territory in a race against Carny to reach the waiting military buyers.

That’s most of the first half of the movie.  The second really begins with the Japanese, fresh off the bombing of Pearl Harbor, coming to Australia to bring the war to her home front.  With Nullah separated from Sarah and Drover, Fletcher plans to use his new found wealth to drive Sarah out of Australia for good.

I’m being deliberately vague…this is a long, epic movie with a lot of Baz Lurhmann’s penchant for melodrama and spectacle, but despite the romance and large scale action sequences, the heart of his story is the treatment of the ‘half-caste’ children and their plight.  Nullah’s grandfather, a pure aborigine called King George (Gulpilil…could you make an Australian period film without him?) is believed to be responsible for murder, but his presence always serves as watcher and protector over those who look after his grandson.

The movie makes a strong case against racism, but does so in some uncomfortable fashions, turning Nullah and King George into what African Americans unceremoniously refer to as ‘magic Negroes’.  They possess mystical powers, which is unreal, and runs the risk of not letting their characters be merely humans caught up in a very human drama.

The cast is wonderful…Nicole Kidman eventually settles into her role, but has to spend much of the early part mugging and overacting.  Hugh Jackman delivers a solid and physical performance as The Drover.  But most impressive is young Brandon Walters as Nullah, who carries most of the picture as its conscience and soul.

This is a movie that offers plenty of entertainment, even at nearly three hours.  The messages aren’t lost, even if they get a little muddled by deliberately unreal story choices, and thanks to the use of CGI, can’t quite compete with the old fashioned epics where everything had to be big, controlled, and real. 

Still, there is more than enough to make up for a few questionable faults.  Australia may not live up to the classic epic films of old, but it is more than good enough to remind you of them for a while.

Video ****

This is a most impressive Blu-ray offering from Fox…the wide open and expansive Australian landscapes ring out with a beauty and clarity, and all scenes, from the brightly lit outdoors to the darkened night sequences are presented with amazing detail and colors.  This film probably makes better use of widescreen and broad camera shots than any other movie from Baz Luhrmann, and one would almost imagine it was crafted with high definition in mind.  The cattle stampede and the attacks on the mission are especially vibrant and shining examples of what the format can deliver.

Audio ****

The DTS HD audio packs quite a punch, from the large scale action pieces like the cattle drive or the aerial attacks to the more quiet, ambient nature showcases.  All of these make terrific use of the surround channels for an authentic, dynamic and enveloping experience.  The terrific score is a real plus, and dialogue is delivered clearly throughout. 

Features ***

The disc includes a short look at Australia, plus production featurettes on the photography, production and costume design, locations, cinematography, sound, editing, music and visual effects, plus some trailers.

Summary:

Australia is a grand scale treatise of Baz Lurhmann’s native land with all the spectacle, melodrama and scope you could expect.  It’s the kind of movie that makes for an exhilarating Blu-ray experience.

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