Writer/director Baz Luhrmann is known for his surprises. In Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet , and Moulin Rouge! he created visual and musical mash-ups of classic and pop that achieved, sometimes apparently accidentally, some transcendence and that were just about always a lot of fun.
But this big epic is told absolutely straight and is all the duller for it. The moment we see the tight little walk of Lady Sarah Ashley (could there be a more snore-ific character name) in her immaculate little suit with the veiled hat, we know it is her destiny to meet a dusty cowpoke and Learn a Few Things, probably involving some earthy cattle, some frolicking in water with said cowpoke, some enlightening experiences involving earthy native peoples, an look of growing appreciation and approval from the earth-smeared cowpoke as he discovers that she has some spunk, a test of her mettle, and a new appreciation for, well, earthiness.
It all unfolds like a script that could have starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and probably did at some point. Three Aussies (one playing a Brit) have made a movie that gives us no special feel for the country’s landscapes, culture, and history. The one attempt to engage us with something meaningful, the authorized abduction of mixed-race children for government-run camps, has little of the power of the fact-based “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” Re-cuts are evident in a last half-hour that seems to end three or four times with two too many reversals. The setting, timing, and accents may be new but there isn’t one line, one plot development, one bad guy, or one adorable urchin that we have not seen before, anything that feels new, or real, or arresting. It’s always nice to see pretty people in grand vistas doing great things and falling in love as the music swells, but in telling the story that should have been most his own, Luhrmann has ceded his vision to someone else.