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 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 film 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.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.