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Baz Luhrmann's Australia is about telling a story. In fact, it's about telling so many stories you may have trouble remembering the single film viewing, and instead recall three or four vaguely different tales.

Blended in the one hundred sixty five minutes of cinema you'll find sweeping remembrances of How the West Was Won, Tora Tora Tora, Crocodile Dundee 2, The African Queen and just a touch of The Jungle Book. Funny, but it all seems to work after a fashion.

In short, this is an historical epic, exploiting a country so similar yet so different from what we know of Australia and what most of us have seen in earlier films set in this amazing land. Nearly all of the rowdy boisterous life we expect in the down-under is on display. But we're also exposed to the patient mysticism of the native Aborigine, the powerful cattle industry with its so close to American stereotypes of the cowboy and cattle rancher, and some surprising history about its invasion during World War II. All stories so familiar, but just askew enough to make them new again.

Certainly the countryside of Australia is the biggest part cast for this film, and Luhrmann exploits it at every opportunity. His camera flies over the countryside, lands beside our heroes, then shoots up into the sky looking down to show how small they are in perspective to this huge wilderness.

But the story that is told, is... well, about stories. From the opening scene where we're introduced to a half-breed aborigine child Nullah, the grandson of the aborigine leader/mystic King George. Indeed, Nullah is learning storytelling and magic from his grandfather, magic which subtly comes into play during the story, or perhaps not - it's left for the viewer to decide.

Magic, singing, and storytelling all seem to knit this larger tale together as recently widowed Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) comes to Austrailia to take over her husbands holdings: one of the last large cattle ranches in Australia not owned by cattle baron "King" Carney.

In somewhat predictable fashion, like the Katherine Hepburn material Kidman has chosen to wear for this outing, Lady Ashley is straight laced and unreasonably self-confident. Just the kind of woman you throw the recently christened "sexiest man in America" at to see what chemical reactions will result.

Hugh Jackman plays Drover, his name and profession, as a drover is the Aussie version of the cattle drive manager. Lady Ashley quickly understands that to save her holdings she will have to put up with the reasonably self-confident Drover and launch a cattle drive across the wilds of Texas... er... Australia.

It does get a little confusing as it is so familiar in both plot and environment, and yet just when you think the truck is going to be attacked by indians, it turns out just to be kangaroos.

So the first half of the film centers on this odd crew, an impossible mission, and the growing appreciation in Ashley for both her situation and companions. By the time they get to the end of the trail, she's a changed woman, and their relationships are all about to change. Momentarily it becomes the tale of an odd family, one still under the threat of the unscrupulous cattle competitors, but still one of charm and entertainment.

Of course, that won't last. We've still got about 90 minutes to fill, and a whole separate movie to show.

The rumbling undercurrent of the realities of World War II finally land in Australia as the war heats up and the fairly little-told tale of Japanese invasion begins. In a manner similar to vengeful aristocratic actions in Titanic, the bombing and occupation doesn't stand in the way of trying to get a bit of personal payback for prior schemes undone.

Without spoiling much, just about everything that has been hinted about in the first part of the film comes true, as well as the timely and charming musical trigger for the Hollywood ending.

Music is important here, obviously not as artificially as in Luhrmann's prior outings of Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet of course, but certainly key in its naturalness. There's a musical aspect to the boy's magic, there's a fairly convincing scene where accomplished singer Kidman convinces us she cannot actually sing or recall the words to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and there's the haunting music of the aboriginal mystic. Music evokes memory and there's even a little Casablanca moment where Jackman tells his long-time aboriginal pal not to "sing that song." Again, we laugh at this scene not because it's terribly funny, but because the situation is so similar to Rick and Sam's.

Australia wants desperately to be a big movie, and accomplishes that in length and grandeur. As a cinematographer Luhrmann has exceeded expecations. Most frames of the film could themselves be framed and hung on a wall; it is uniformly beautiful and majestic. And while Luhrmann seems to have grown out of his earlier camera trickery, over and undercranking and staging excesses (which some love but most hate), he falls a bit short of creating original movie magic here.

Still Australia is worth viewing, one of the more entertaining movies of the year, and the length of the film is bereft of dragging or boredom. And that accomplishment, in itself, seems somewhat magical.

Ric Bretschneider

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