Australia (12A)

Big, empty, and a long journey

A national epic self-consciously modelled on the wide-screen majesties of Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia, Baz Luhrmann's Australia has a big heart but a weak head.

It wants to dazzle us with its grandeur and intoxicate us with its old-fashioned sense of romance – to steamroller us into submission. Nothing wrong with a film's reach exceeding its grasp, but Luhrmann's ambition has left this one looking forlorn and exposed: Australia clears a huge space for itself and then hasn't the wit or the wherewithal to fill it.

For all their campy flamboyance, his pictures hitherto have been fitted to a scale. Strictly Ballroom was a small suburban dance movie; Romeo + Juliet was a thugs' opera with cars and guns; even Moulin Rouge!, the most synthetic of modern musicals, faked its fin-de-siècle Paris on sound-stages. With this new movie he's right out in the open, with nowhere to hide. The story it tells doesn't have the momentum or the intricacy to justify its sprawl and, even if it did, is hamstrung by a massive failure of casting. Smearing a rather disjointed drama over just shy of three hours puts pressure on its stars to deliver solid performances, and the only solid thing on show here turns out to be Hugh Jackman's torso, apparently built to the model of a circus strongman's. Of Nicole Kidman's performance, the kindest thing to say would be that she responds to her director's faux-operatic sensibility; the skin might be flawless but the acting certainly isn't, and nor is the accent.

She plays Sarah Ashley, a wealthy aristocratic Englishwoman whose clipped vowels are almost a parody of Brit twittery. (It is amazing that a line as innocent as, "Oh Ramsden, drink your tea", can sound so excruciating). Lady Ashley has arrived in Australia from Blighty with a mountain of luggage and a mission to retrieve her husband, whom she suspects of dalliances with the local women. In the port of Darwin she hooks up with her guide, a roughneck drover known as, er, the Drover (Hugh Jackman), who will escort her to the family-owned Faraway Downs, a vast cattle station in the Northern Territory. In the farce that dominates the opening section, he has a saloon brawl while she has her suitcase of underclothes thrown open to public view. They start off hating each other – he's earthy and uncouth, she's prissy and imperious – and, in the tradition of Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen, they come to fall in love.

The occasion for their eventual bonding is a do-or-die cattle-drive, undertaken to save Faraway Downs and foil the scheme of a rival cattle baron (Bryan Brown) to buy Ashley's land on the cheap. Brown is one of several familiar antipodean faces here; David Wenham plays his shifty henchman, Jack Thompson is the sottish accountant, and David Gulpilil is the Aboriginal shaman King George, whose mystical interventions keep the plot's motor going just as it threatens to conk out. King George's 11-year-old grandson Nullah (Brandon Walters) is the half-caste boy who becomes not just a mascot to the lead pair but the conscience of the whole film. His mixed-race status (a "creamy", as the whites call him) has made him a target of the local police, who want to send him to a mission school to have "the black" bred out of him, and he becomes the focus of the film's apology for the "stolen generations" of aboriginal children.

But, as with Hollywood movies about America's segregationist past, the pendulum of correction has swung too firmly the other way. Rather than make Nullah a permanently chipper, smiley, sweet-faced kid, couldn't Luhrmann and his three scriptwriters have given him a character? The theme of cultural kidnapping has, in any case, been treated far more interestingly by Fred Schepisi in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith 30 years ago, and recently by Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence. Both leave this movie for dust.

None of the three sections that comprise the film – a farce, then a western, then a war story – feels anchored in anything that resembles reality. Luhrmann is a stylist to the tips of his shoes (rhinestone cowboy-boots, I imagine) but he launches himself into style at the expense of more elusive stuff that would get an audience behind a movie: dramatic credibility being the main one.

I imagine he was delighted to secure Kidman for the lead, yet Australia once again shows why she has been box-office poison. As elegantly as she wears the clothes, there's not a single true note in her performance. Her face, scoured clean of wrinkles, makes her look eerily like a waxwork model, and has drastically reduced her expressive range. Even the potentially moving scene in which she tries to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to entertain Nullah goes wrong: her faltering recall of the words just isn't very well acted. Jackman brings a likeable virility and charm to the Drover, though, surrounded by so much fakery (the CGI is unconvincing), any nuances of character have been lost. He too becomes attached to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", one of the film's two pet themes. The other, Percy Grainger's "Blithe Bells" is left mysteriously uncredited – an oversight, surely? Then again, Luhrmann's magpie attitude to music, horribly evidenced in Moulin Rouge!, keeps getting him into trouble. The final scene, with Nullah about to embark on an Aboriginal rite of passage, is soundtracked to the "Nimrod" passage from Elgar's Enigma Variations – beautiful, but so deeply dyed with associations of British colonial spirit as to sound bizarrely misplaced. Some might attribute it to a sly sense of irony but, on the basis of available evidence, that might be to overestimate Luhrmann's sophistication.

'Australia' opens on 26 December