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Love letter to Australia; the big release AUSTRALIA (12A, 165 mins) *****.

Byline: GAVIN ALLEN

THERE'S nothing The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - the group that doles out the Oscars - love more than a ravishing epic period romance.

The late director Anthony Minghella exuded the preferred Oscar style with the likes of The English Patient and Cold Mountain but the man who has stepped up to claim his crown is perhaps a surprising one - Baz Luhrmann.

Luhrmann has previously been an aesthetical enfant terrible, his adaptation of Romeo And Juliet and his wonderfully wonky Moulin Rouge were both films as likely to make your head spin as they were to make you fall in love with them.

It's a surprise then, to see him in such classically styled waters with Australia, but it's less of a surprise to see that he has yet again produced a stunning film with this sprawling love letter to his homeland.

The story is set at the opening of World War II and follows Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) from her aristocratic English estate to the Australian outback, where she plans to meet her husband at the Faraway Downs cattle station.

But she arrives to find him dead and the station on the brink of financial collapse, with scheming cattle magnate King Carney (Brian Brown) lingering to take it over.

With the help of rugged cowpoke Drover (Hugh Jackman), Sarah decides to rescue it by herding 500 prize cattle across the country to Darwin. And, yes you guessed it, Sarah and Drover fall in love on the journey.

Meanwhile, Carney is desperate for Sarah's mission to fail and sends his murderous right-hand man Fletcher (David Wenham) to ensure that happens. But as the journey nears it climax, the Japanese prepare a blitz on Darwin that could separate the lovers forever.

Australia is a real triumph for Luhrmann.

It has all the trimmings you would expect from an Oscar contender with stunning production design from Catherine Martin and cinematography from Mandy Walker that is of such jaw-dropping quality they may as well hand her that technical gong now.

But once you rip off the wrapping, underneath there's a seductive and weighty romance, an exciting action film and a clutch of fine comedic moments.

Crucial to its success is the chemistry between Kidman and Jackman and between them they generate enough steam to get a hot air balloon off the ground.

The ladies will get a kick out of Jackman's gratuitous shower scene in the outback as water runs down his torso in slow motion, while Kidman has rarely looked more perfect, displaying real comic timing as the noblewoman out of her comfort zone in a country at odds with its Aborigine population.

The pace of the film slackens as the Japanese bombers descend on Darwin but by then you're so hooked you won't care.

Australia will be a box office sensation.

CAPTION(S):

PICTURE PERFECT: Nicole Kidman plays aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley in this love story tipped for Oscar success; RUGGED ROMANCE: Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 26, 2008
Words:501
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