When I first lived in Australia, in the late 1980s, I saw a film called Dead Calm, starring a freckle-faced, frizzy-haired redhead called Nicole Kidman. The movie was well received, and soon afterwards Kidman departed for the US and metamorphosed into a Hollywood star. She married Tom Cruise, adopted two children, divorced Cruise, won an Oscar, married Keith Urban and had a baby. She got rid of her freckles, straightened her hair, turned blonde, and warded off wrinkles, it is said, with Botox – a claim Kidman denies.
All of this was faithfully covered by the Australian media, in whose eyes "our Nic" could do little wrong. Kidman's compatriots even forgave her for dabbling in Scientology, for Cruise's fame meant she was constantly in the spotlight, which reflected well on Australia. The couple's eccentricities were treated as indulgently as the phone-throwing antics of Kidman's fellow Australian Russell Crowe.
But Kidman was struggling professionally. During her 10-year marriage to Cruise, she played, with a few exceptions, a series of mediocre and forgettable roles. Then came an Oscar nomination (in 2002) for Moulin Rouge and an Oscar win (in 2003) for The Hours. Since then, though, her performances have vacillated wildly.
Australia, directed by Baz Luhrmann, who also made Moulin Rouge, was supposed to be the film that would finally establish Kidman as a great actor. Luhrmann had big ambitions, too, as was evident from the movie's title. He wanted to capture the essence of the country, tackle the racial prejudice that blights it, and help define the national psyche.
Propelled by such hubris, the £88m film – which opens in UK cinemas today – was bound to disappoint, and the reviews have been scathing. Billed as an Antipodean Gone With The Wind, the Second World War saga – the most expensive Australian movie ever made – is epic only in its length (165 minutes), and its sweeping vistas of desert landscapes.
I must confess I was dreading it, not least because of Kidman's starring role. I don't like her acting, and find her off-screen persona irritating: those arch looks for the camera, those overplucked eyebrows, those perpetual battles with the paparazzi. Give me Cate Blanchett any day, a great actor happy to be seen around Sydney in casual clothes and no make-up.
In Australia, Kidman plays a buttoned-up English aristocrat who inherits a Northern Territory ranch and falls in love with the outback, a cattle drover (Hugh Jackman), and an Aboriginal boy (Brandon Walters). She is, actually, quite good in the part, and there are other strong performances, notably by Walters, a newcomer, and the veteran Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil. None of them can save the movie, however, which is excruciatingly long, riddled with clichés, and wholly unrevelatory.
Luhrmann has spoken about the transformative power of the Australian landscape, and, by extension, of its original inhabitants. While he must be commended for weaving in the theme of the Stolen Generations (the mixed-race children forcibly removed from their families), the film's portrayal of Aboriginal people is sentimental, bordering on mawkish.
Kidman is reportedly so upset by the negative reviews that she has cancelled her customary Christmas in Sydney. She ought to choose her films more wisely. Meanwhile, Australians' eternal quest for a national identity continues, unassisted by Australia, the movie.