The story begins in pre-World War II Australia and is narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-white/half-Aborigine boy who is continually hiding from the authorities (in the 19th and 20th centuries, Aborigine children were forcibly taken from their families for indoctrination, reeducation and assimilation into white culture, as the movie's opening scroll helpfully informs us). Meanwhile, aristocratic Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has come to the Outback to find her husband, an Englishman caught up in the romance of frontier cattle ranching. His murder sets in motion the rest of the story, which involves a monopolistic cattle baron named King Carney (Bryan Brown), his treacherous son-in-law Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and a roving drover (a sort of Aussie cowboy) called, simply, the Drover (Hugh Jackman), whose rippling biceps and washboard abs give the rocky peaks and valleys of the Outback something to which to aspire. The newly widowed Sarah takes notice of the local landscape too, and takes to the ranching way of life like a born frontierswoman. Apparating in the vicinity of all the action like a skinny deus ex machina is King George (David Gulpilil), Nullah's wizardly grandfather, who imparts some aboriginal mysticism on his magical protégé grandson while he waits to take the boy on walkabout. Eventually, the war comes to northern Australia and, as they say, all hell breaks loose.
But Australia is really about love, not war, and Lady Sarah must learn that, as Sting once sang, "If you love somebody, set them free." The ups and downs of the lady's love life are played for comic relief as much as they are for three-hankie melodrama, with Kidman more than game for looking foolish and getting her hair mussed. Her role is modeled on the Katharine Hepburn archetype of the capable, headstrong, independently minded woman attracted to the equally capable, headstrong, independently minded man. Like Sarah, Jackman's scruffy Drover cleans up pretty well, and transforms from a dusty John Wayne type into a dashing Clark Gable type with an assist from the transformative power of soap and a nice tux (his retro voguing warrants a few laughs, too). He's an iconic loner, a wilderness man, a free-range horseman; but at heart he's a softie, because Luhrmann always insists that his dashing heroes be every bit as weepy as the women who compete with and complete them. The result is a movie that's funny, moving and thoroughly engaging - an old-fashioned movie with a gauzy glow and a modern, newfangled twist.
Luhrmann is the wizard of this Oz, pulling levers from behind the curtain, unseen but hardly invisible. Australia, like Luhrmann's Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!), employs the director's signature and unabashed "heightened artifice" and flair for the melodramatic to amplify emotion and get a point across without any pretense of subtlety - nor any allegiance to realism. The sets and costumes are deluxe and draw attention to themselves, but in a way that anchors scenes using the cinematic signposts and tropes that direct both the gaze and the expectations of the audience.
Australia is a movie in which a great deal happens but not much is surprising, because most of what happens is strongly predetermined by narrative and movie tradition. That's not necessarily a bad thing, in context; most movies follow predetermined narrative paths, but don't embrace the fact and go to great lengths to disguise it. Australia offers up a brief history of the Land Down Under in a familiar package, following well-established trails blazed decades ago by Hollywood. Those trails - the war movie, the Western - have been retraveled in revisionist vehicles of late. Luhrmann's an anti-revisionist who injects old movie genres with recombinant DNA in the form of new visual techniques and styles. But while he embraces artifice, Luhrmann does it in order to pump reality. Dorothy might have only dreamed in color while she lived in a dreary black-and-white world, but Luhrmann's Oz is colored in a way that crystallizes the black and the white, renders them richer and deeper and strips them clean of ambiguity. Australia may not be realistic, but in its florid, Maximalist way, it is sincerely about reality.