Take two – Baz Luhrmann’s epic flop Australia returns

Australian acting royalty Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman reimagined over six chapters in <i>Australia </i>reboot, <i>Faraway Downs</i>.

Australian acting royalty Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman reimagined over six chapters in Australia reboot, Faraway Downs. Photo: AAP

In 2008, award-winning filmmaker Baz Luhrmann premiered Australia, his long-awaited historical romantic drama set during World War II, that starred Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

But the film, with a reported budget of $US130 million ($203 million) and running for nearly three hours, got only mixed reviews thanks to controversy over casting (Russell Crowe was supposed to take the lead actor role as Drover), storyline, and a $50 million government-funded campaign to promote the nation’s flagging tourism industry that was pegged to it.

After 15 years buried in the national archives, Australia, renamed Faraway Downs after the Northern Territory cattle station on which the story is based, has been re-imagined by Luhrmann for a TV streaming series (on Disney+ in Australia, if you’re a fan).

In fact, he has cut and pasted “over two million feet of film from the original piece” (that’s 610,000 metres) and reworked it into six chapters that will close the inaugural SXSW Sydney Screen Festival on October 21 with a world premiere.


“I was inspired to re-approach my film Australia to create Faraway Downs because of the way episodic storytelling has been reinvigorated by the streaming world,” Luhrmann said in a SXSW statement announcing the premiere.

But will one of Kidman’s and Jackman’s “most prominent flops” (as described by Variety) get a better reception in 2023?

Watch the official 'Australia' trailer

Source: YouTube

‘Welcome to Astraya’

Years after Luhmann’s success with Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and Romeo+Juliet in 1996, the hype, anticipation and global promotion – including Kidman playing a didgeridoo and Jackman standing on one leg on German television – surely would translate into box-office success.

Jackman played a muscled-up, handsome outback drover with perfect pearly-white teeth hired to protect Faraway Downs. Kidman was cast as an English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley, who arrives Down Under to sort out the sale of Faraway Downs, a cattle property inherited from her late husband, King Carney (Bryan Brown).

The camera loved her.

Against a backdrop of cinematic Aussie landscapes set to appeal to the overseas tourist market, Australia was described as “an adventure-romance explored through the eyes of a young bi-racial Indigenous boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), caught up in the government’s Draconian racial policy now referred to as the Stolen Generations”.

Ben Mendelsohn, David Wenham and Jack Thompson make up the supporting cast.

Set between 1939 and 1942, the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on February 19, 1942, is at the pointy end of the film.

“Flashy wonderfully well-looking movie stars, great scenery and great studio settings, detailed recreation of the era’s fashion, decoration, atmosphere, ” wrote one IMDb review on the film’s release, “and a simple epic plot with a great love story”.

Australia has all of this, but also a little bit of corn, a thin plot, weak characters and flaws that are even more noticeable in a super-production like this.”

‘Fake epic’

Australian feminist Germaine Greer was far more direct: “By twisting history, garbling geography and glossing over the appalling exploitation of Aboriginal workers, Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia bears more relation to fairytale than fact”, she wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian in December 2008.

Greer single-handedly dissects fact from fiction on many levels – comparing it to a Mills & Boon plot – from the interpretation of Aboriginal reconciliation to how cattle stations were actually staffed, run and financed.

A “fake epic”, she wrote bluntly.

Baz Luhrmann with Nicole Kidman, Catherine Martin and Hugh Jackman for the Rome premiere in December 2008. Photo: AAP

Many international reviews were equally scathing, but concentrated more on the corny, cheesy nature of the production, with plenty of praise for Kidman as a shining light.

Australia shows all the signs of having been a labour of love for … Luhrmann. One problem: It’s his love, and the audience’s labour,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle in late November of that year.

“A mix of bad acting, convenient plot turns and politically correct sentimentality, the movie has more endings than the third Lord of the Rings film.

“Luhrmann aims for epic scope and ends up with pretty pictures. He veers from earnest drama to brisk comedy and then tries to hold it together with awkward voice-over narration.

“Within five minutes, Australia seems headed for trouble. It gets there and stays there,” wrote the paper’s movie critic Mick Lasalle.

Even Kidman ‘squirmed’

At the Sydney premiere in early January 2009, it was reported Kidman “squirmed” in her seat throughout the screening because she was so uncomfortable watching herself on screen.

“I can’t look at this movie and be proud of what I’ve done. I sat there, and I looked at Keith and went, ‘Am I any good in this movie?’ But I thought Brandon Walters and Hugh Jackman were wonderful,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time.

“It’s just impossible for me to connect to it emotionally at all.”

Kidman said she fled Australia with husband Keith Urban as soon as the premiere was over.

“We ran because I didn’t want to read anything. I didn’t want to know. I saw my sister and my family and we saw Keith’s family and then we were straight on a plane,” she reportedly told Sydney radio station 2dayFM.

‘What a great idea!’

With the epic filmed on location in Darwin and the Queensland town of Bowen, it was costume designer Catherine Martin and Brandon Walters who took home most of the nominations and awards.

Globally, the film made just over $US210 million in box office receipts.

As Faraway Downs‘ co-writer, producer and director, Luhrmann will take centre stage at SXSW to present the 20th Television studio limited series “using original footage and a new ending and updated soundtrack”, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

It is not yet known how long the six chapters in total run.

“With over two million feet of film from the original piece, my team and I were able to revisit anew the central themes of the work,” Luhrmann said in his SWSX statement.

We do know Kidman, who was pregnant with daughter Sunday on the 2007 set, stars in Faraway Downs and apparently has had a change of heart, last year giving her endorsement for the project.

In a Vogue celebrity Q&A between Kidman and Luhrmann last year – where they looked back on the highs and lows of their decades-long partnership – Kidman revealed Sunday “loves the film”.

“The child that was birthed from that film, loves the film!

“And, I said, ‘It’s so of now!’ So then when you were like, ‘Oh, I’m thinking of doing this in a much longer version [Faraway Downs] … I was like, ‘What a great idea!’

” … there were a lot of things we shot that you couldn’t put into the film, there just wasn’t the time.

“It’s so rich, that text, that story.”

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