Lady Sarah Ashley has one reason for traveling from her native England to the Land Down Under: to stop her husband, Maitland, from cheating on her. What else could possess a man to spend so much time on a middle-of-nowhere cattle station?
Her checklist is simple: show up at Faraway Downs, expedite its sale to neighboring cattle tycoon King Carney, retrieve said philandering spouse and return to England. (There's no telling why she needs a truckload of suitcases to accomplish her mission. A British lady's wardrobe is her own business.)
Sarah's arrival in Darwin on the north coast of Australia couldn't be more shocking to her if it had been her arrival on the moon. It's dusty. People aren't dressed "properly." And en route to find the driver her husband has hired to carry her to Faraway Downs, she lands smack in the middle of a bar fight. As it turns out, the toughest brute in the brawl is the man she'll have to trust to take her two days into the bush in a rusty old pickup. Drover—known by his profession of "droving" ranch animals, rather than his given name—has been hired by Maitland as a cattleman for an upcoming livestock drive to Darwin. Delivering Sarah to the ranch is just a bonus hassle.
On their arrival at Faraway Downs, Sarah discovers that her husband isn't cheating. He's dead. He has apparently been killed just hours before by an old Aboriginal witch doctor named King George. And King Carney isn't who she thought he was either. Rather than making a fair offer to buy Faraway Downs, he's using every mean trick in his bag to ruin the Ashley cattle business and further establish his own beef monopoly.
Suddenly, Drover stops being just a crusty cattleman and becomes Sarah's biggest ally in her efforts to save Faraway Downs, beat Carney at his own game, thwart an employee-turned-traitor ... and find a home for an orphan of mixed race named Nullah.
Set primarily in the years before World War II came to Australia's shores, Australia relays the ugly history of half-white, half-Aboriginal children being kidnapped and raised in Christian mission camps, with the hopes of "breeding the black out of them" and fitting them for service in white families. According to the film's postscript, assimilation remained official Australian policy until 1973.
Australia personalizes this struggle through Nullah, whose white father despises him, and whose black mother drowns in an attempt to prevent his capture by local authorities. Though he struggles throughout the film with his split identity, the boy eventually finds acceptance and security in both black and white cultures because of individual adults who show him love.
In contrast to other whites, Sarah nurtures and protects Nullah and—though she's not naturally maternal—learns to love him as her own. She goes beyond loving an individual boy, though, and challenges the whole white social system that hypocritically and promiscuously produces these "half-caste" or "creamy" children only to ostracize them as less than human.
Drover is another character in whom the evils of racism hit home, his first wife (who was Aborigine) having died because Australian doctors couldn't legally provide medical treatment for blacks at the time. At first he sets his jaw and takes a that's-just-the-way-it-is attitude, but Sarah teaches him that "just because it is, doesn't mean it should be." Eventually, he too learns to stand publicly against racism.
Sarah, Drover, Nullah and their friends fight the Carney Cattle empire's corruption. The Faraway Downs crew condemns cheating and selfishness, and lauds teamwork, perseverance and sacrifice. Kipling Flynn starts off as a slobbering drunk accountant who is cooking the books. But given the worthwhile motivation provided by Sarah's arrival, he rises to the occasion. Several characters put their lives at risk (and two lose their lives) trying to save others.
At Maitland's funeral, the officiant prays that "his soul may enter through the gates of heaven." Most other portrayals of Christianity are in association with the assimilation camps, where mixed-race children are taught the Christian faith with almost the same fervor as they are taught Western culture. Some of the missionaries are innocent, expressing genuine concern for the lives of the "creamies" they're raising. Others are blatantly racist.
After the Japanese bomb Mission Island, many children are marooned there. An earnest priest who's looking for a boat says "the Lord is on my side." Drover proceeds to clock a lackey who's in possession of said vessel and quips, "The Lord works in mysterious ways, brother." A character states, "I'm not Jesus Christ" in a way that's not exactly inappropriate, but not entirely reverent, either.
Nullah's black grandfather, King George, is described multiple times as a witch doctor. In contrast with the naive, racist Christianity surrounding it, the religion that he practices and teaches to Nullah is presented as organic, honest and efficacious. He coaches Nullah to sing to the world around him to magically make desired events happen. Nullah often refers to himself as a "magic man" and holds his hands out toward various enemies and dangers, willing them to obey his thoughts. Grandfather and grandson talk about the spirits of places and people. For example, King George describes some of the white cattlemen as "bad spirits," while he is certain that Sarah has come like rain for the purpose of healing the land.
On their journey from Darwin to Faraway Downs, Sarah accuses Drover of having ignoble intentions. She says he wants to "have it on" with her. She mistakenly assumes that he means to share a single tent with her and two other men. (He actually plans to leave the tent for her and have the men sleep around the fire.) In the same scene, Drover is shown shirtless, slowly pouring water over his chest in a sensuous camp-shower scene. (He's wearing pants.) Later, Sarah is shown in the bath, her bare shoulders protruding from the water.
Nullah uses "wrong side business" and "laying down and tickling" as euphemisms for adults engaging in sexual intercourse. Drover explains to Sarah that in the Outback, white men often hire Aboriginal women as part of their cattle-driving crews so that they'll "have someone to keep them warm at night."
Most of the Aboriginals are dressed in Western attire, but King George wears only a buttocks-baring loincloth. Nullah's mother wears a low-cut dress. Lingerie spills from Sarah's luggage.
In the middle of nowhere, and working toward a common cause, it's no surprise that Sarah and Drover fall for each other. They dance. They kiss. And eventually they end up in bed. (Audiences see them naked but for the bed sheets which cover them from the waist down; he is on top of her, his arm shielding her breasts from the camera's view.) Later, they embrace as they swim naked beneath a waterfall. (Shoulders are exposed.)
Sarah and Drover eventually settle into a pattern of seasonal cohabitation, with Drover sharing Sarah's bed at Faraway Downs during the rainy season, and heading out on long cattle drives during the dry season. Once, she challenges him to make their relationship more permanent or leave, so he leaves. Their reunion at the finale gives no indication that they will actually marry.
A man is killed with spears. A young boy hiding underwater is startled when a man who's been stabbed floats down practically on top of him. A white man punches a black woman and attacks a child, slapping him and trying to hit him with a rifle. Sarah defensively whacks him with a stick. Drover is quite a fighter, hitting an opponent in the head multiple times in the bar fight, and hammering another baddie later on.
Carney's men attempt to sabotage Drover and the ranch crew on a cattle drive. They start a huge brushfire to trigger a stampede. In the ensuing chaos, Nullah nearly falls over the edge of a cliff, and one man is trampled and killed. We see his bloodied body and face, and hear his labored last words.
When World War II finds Australia, Japanese planes let their destructive fire fall on Darwin and the surrounding area. Mission Island, where Nullah is being held at the time, is the first to be hit. Everything is in flames. Japanese soldiers follow the planes on foot to wreak further havoc. A bomb kills a priest, while most of the children survive. A man is shot multiple times as he helps evacuate the children.
After her arrival in Australia, Sarah is amazed to witness kangaroo bounding across the Outback, only to see one of them shot at close range. The dead animal is then strapped to the top of the vehicle she's in, and its blood runs down the windshield. We briefly see a crocodile attack a man. (We later hear that the man dies.) We witness a dead man laid out on a table and Nullah's mother as she drowns.
Drug and Alcohol Content
At first, Kipling Flynn is drunk more often than he's sober. Later, he hides his stash of booze in various places, including behind a Bible in his room.
On numerous occasions, men drink in a bar, where cigars and pipes are also in heavy use. Several times, Sarah sets aside her upscale ways and tosses back shots with them. King Carney drinks straight from a bottle of rum. With his dying words, a man expresses fondness for alcohol.
Director Baz Luhrmann describes Australia as employing "a mixture of visual language." "It's not super-theatrical," he explains, "but it's not naturalism." That's an apt description of this sweeping epic, which has more in common with the overlapping storylines and character development of Far and Away, Out of Africa or The Lord of the Rings than it does with Luhrmann's flashy, artsy past work in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!
Which is to say that for audiences to remain engaged throughout the film's nearly three-hour runtime, they need to care about the filmmaker's development of character, setting and theme more than they care about constant action and visual stimulation. Stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman will certainly help Lurhmann lure moviegoers. What doesn't help this sweepingly romantic film is a sex scene between its unmarried stars, an f-word and a "happily ever after" ending that implies cohabitation.
Digging deeper, it's fair to say Lurhmann uses Australia as a platform to explore two interlocking but separate issues. The first is racism, the moral fulcrum upon which the film pivots. In this area, the director is studiously goodhearted. The second is the idea that it's wrong for one culture to demand that some people (in this case, mixed-race children of Aborigines and whites) be "assimilated" into the wholly foreign worldview of the dominant class (in this case, white Christians).
Lurhmann's treatment of this latter subject is indeed provocative, but doesn't illuminate every corner: Jesus' Great Commission calls Christian believers to take the gospel to all nations. But in practice, sometimes that mandate has been misinterpreted to justify forcible, insensitive and immoral behavior. That is what Australia concentrates on—becoming something of a case study in how not to evangelize.
Probably without intending to do so—and without grinding any axes, per se—Luhrmann compels Christians to consider what it should look like to share the gospel while respecting a different culture's heritage. It seems, though, that he believes this is an impossible task. His movie clearly insists that self-contained cultures should simply be left alone.