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You can't help but be swept up in this eye-popping visual feast that deserves its comparisons to great movies such as Gone With the Wind and Out of Africa.


Australia is like no other movie this year -- or even this century, for that matter. It's heart and soul live in conjuring up memories of the kind of epic movie they just don't make anymore. The incomparable Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) proves nobody does this kind of thing better. The story begins just at the brink of World War II, as a prim and uptight Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels to the distant and uncharted Northern Territory of Australia in order to deal with her husband's supposed infidelity. When she finds him murdered, however, the only way she can save their ranch Faraway Downs is to join a strapping "drover" (Hugh Jackman) in driving 1500 head of cattle to the Australian port Darwin, where the military can buy them. Trying to interfere with their mission are the evil land baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown), and his henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), who are determined to add her ranch to their collection. As inevitable romance rears its head, Lady Ashley must also protect a precocious aboriginal kid, Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), a half breed she is determined to adopt before he is turned over to the state for re-education. Meanwhile, the Japanese loom closer.


Luhrmann provides a grand showcase for a wonderful array of actors from Down Under, including Kidman and Jackman. Kidman, who has had a recent dry spell in films, is back in form as the rigid Brit, who is transformed by her visit. It's the kind of role Katharine Hepburn did so well in movies like The African Queen. Newly crowned People Magazine "Sexiest Man Alive," Jackman lives up to the title, all brawn and bravado, the epitome of the rugged cowboy who becomes the dashing hero. Together, the two actors steam it up and redefine what it means to be a matinee idols. As the half-caste kid Nullah, 13 year-old Walters is a marvel and steals the show. Veteran aussie actors Brown and Wenham (Lord of the Rings) are properly menacing and hateful, while the group accompanying Jackman and Kidman are splendid, including: legendary Jack Thompson (Leatherheads) as the gregarious over-the-top Kipling Flynn; Drover's aboriginal partner Magarri (David Ngoombujarra); and the mystical King George (David Gulpilil), Nullah's grandfather, who seems to show up at the oddest times.


There can be no question Baz Luhrmann is the most flamboyant, old school director working today. After completing his "Red Curtain Trilogy" of musicals, including his Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge, he goes above and beyond with Australia, throwing in everything -- including the kitchen sink. Baz loves old movies and you can tell. Maybe more like Lawrence of Australia, this films is a mind-boggling wonder with epic scope and splendor. The spectacular CGI-driven cattle drive and the bombing of Darwin are all done in large strokes. He even throws in an homage to The Wizard of Oz that takes the film to the kind of sentimental heights fans will probably eat up. How contemporary audiences will react to this throwback to Hollywood's heyday of big, brawny cinema is anyone's guess, but the singular vision of Luhrmann is to experience Australia and fall in love with the possibility of grand movies all over again.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.