Luhrmann's 'Australia' struggles to live up to hype

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After years of filming, months of hype and a multi-million-dollar budget blow-out, the much-anticipated film Australia finally opened today, 48 hours after director Baz Luhrmann put the finishing touches to it.

The world premiere in Sydney stopped traffic, with one of the city’s main streets closed to accommodate thousands of invited guests and onlookers. But even as the stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman trod the red carpet, critics were sinking their teeth into Australia’s most expensive and ambitious film on record.

The Melbourne Age called it an “overlong melodramatic saga” with “the pace of a steamroller with engine trouble”. The newspaper lambasted Luhrmann for his eagerness “to trowel on the Aussie cliches”, and noted, of the film’s rugged backdrop, that “there are only so many wide shots of the Aussie outback that the human mind can stand”.

In fairness, the epic Second World War romance and adventure story was never going to live up to absurdly elevated expectations. Heralded as a cinematic sensation on the scale of Crocodile Dundee, the £88m film was supposed to rescue the country’s ailing film and tourism industries, and redefine the national identity.

Promoted as a cross between Gone With The Wind and Out of Africa, the three-hour film follows the fortunes of Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), a buttoned-up English aristocrat who inherits her late husband’s cattle station. Falling in love with Australia’s sweeping landscapes, and with an enigmatic stockman (Jackman), she gradually unbuttons herself.

To save the ranch from a predatory cattle baron (Bryan Brown), she has to drive 2,000 cattle hundreds of miles cross-country, with the help of Jackman and an Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters). They arrive in Darwin just in time for the city to be bombed by the Japanese. The theme of the Stolen Generations, the mixed-race children removed from their families, also features. With rumours flying in recent days of rows between Luhrmann and 20th Century Fox over how the movie should end (happy or sad), the director and his stars finally presented themselves at a press conference this afternoon.

But controversy was avoided. Jackman said the film had given him his greatest role to date. Luhrmann, the director of Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, said he felt under a lot of pressure. Kidman revealed that Australia could be her last film: she might up giving acting and have more children instead. The actress, married to the country singer, Keith Urban, fell pregnant with their first baby, Sunday Rose, during filming.

The hype surrounding the movie reached a peak this week, with selected critics invited to a screening on Monday, but forced to sign a secrecy clause preventing them from revealing crucial plot details or passing judgement before the premiere. But reviews began trickling out today, and not all were negative. Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, which – like 20th Century Fox – is part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, was positively gushing. “A love-letter to the Australian landscape and our history, Australia has international blockbuster written all over it,” the newspaper declared, calling the film “a compelling and moving tale which traverses war, race relations, class and the Stolen Generation”.

With much of the movie shot in the harshly beautiful interior of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, tourism authorities are hoping it will entice more international visitors here. Luhrmann was even commissioned to make a series of tourism advertisements, to tie in with Australia’s release locally next week. (It opens in Britain on Boxing Day.) Today, fans waited for hours in the rain to catch a glimpse of Kidman, who turned up in a short, white, beaded dress, after a 24-hour flight from Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with Urban. As well as Jackman, Brown and Walters, her co-stars on the red carpet included David Wenham, Jack Thompson and the veteran Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil.

Premieres were also staged in three regional centres where filming was concentrated: Darwin, Bowen in Queensland, and Kununurra, a dusty outback town in Western Australia.