First and foremost, the film simply attempts to tell too much. The central story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and the Drover (Hugh Jackman) recalls The African Queen, but not in a good way. She's a pale, uptight, stick-thin Brit heading down under in September 1939 to save her husband's out-back cattle ranch and he's her handsome brawny employee.
Certainly no one does handsome and brawny better than Jackman -- who is indeed the sexiest man alive -- and Luhrmann gives him one truly iconic moment: a moonlit bathing scene in the wild that's every bit as sensational as Bo Derek's famed beach run in 10. But since Kidman has devolved into a live-action version of Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride, there's absolutely no onscreen chemistry between the stars.
Bookending their lukewarm romance is the more satisfying tale of Nullah (newcomer Brandon Walters), a beautiful, copper-skinned half-caste child, and his aboriginal grandfather King George (veteran actor David Gulpilil). Nullah narrates the whole film, while also telling his own story to underscore Australia's shameful treatment of its aboriginal population in general and its half-caste children. Ultimately, the real romance here is the mutual love Sarah and the Drover have for this magical child.
A gorgeous if frightening cattle drive, photographed in vertiginous aerial fashion, is followed by a romantic lull in which Sarah, the Drover and Nullah keep house together for a year or two until -- cue the dramatic music -- Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and then the army base in Darwin. These scenes recall the best and worst of such disparate epics as Gone with the Wind and Pearl Harbor.
The fact that the film seems to end several times before it does merely underscores its length. And by using Nullah's story as both the frame and moral compass of his sprawling epic, Luhrmann shows a surprising lack of originality, which is the one thing you'd never expect from him!