I am disappointed, but not particularly surprised, by the somewhat chilly reception that has greeted Australia. It is unmistakably a throwback: not just unashamedly old-fashioned, but altogether smug about it. And old-fashioned films aren't really in style right now, especially from a director like Baz Luhrmann, whose career to this point has been exclusively concerned with taking the mustiest plots and genres out there (romantic comedy, Shakespeare, backstage musical) and jazzing them up with aggressively contemporary stylistic flair. Superficially, Australia has nothing to compare to the rat-a-tat editing, swooping cameras, and perilously over-stuffed set decoration of Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet, but for all that it's hard to imagine another filmmaker who would grab a story like this and tell it quite this way: I'd imagine that the people who will love it the most will be the ones who already loved those earlier films (along with the comparatively sedate Strictly Ballroom, which is still quite a deliciously messy patchwork film), even if they - "we", I mean, obviously - don't love it for quite the same reasons.

I shan't bother with a plot synopsis, as the film covers at least four distinct narrative arcs that all combine into one gargantuan SuperPlot best described as "the history of northern Australia, 1939-1941", but basically it's about Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English widow left with a faltering cattle ranch, and a lapsed-romantic man of mystery who comes to help first with her cows and then with her appreciation for life, known only by his job description: he's just The Drover (Hugh Jackman). A cruel cattle baron, institutionalised racism, the savage Outback landscape, and the pugilistic Japanese Empire all figure into the film's 165 minutes in one way or another. What I can say is that virtually none of the things that happen in the film will surprise you very much, and that none of them are supposed to.

In his previous films, dubbed the "Red Curtain Trilogy", Luhrmann affected a deliberately artificial, theatrical style, in which he used the generic simplicity of his stories to explore the meaning of their genre, using a particular hook in each case (stylised dance sequences, Shakespearean language, anachronistic pop songs) as tools to further explore what we as an audience expect from films, and what happens when our expectations are frustrated. I supposed I'd expected that Australia would therefore turn out to be a film about the concept of Epic Romance rather than an Epic Romance itself, and I wasn't precisely wrong, insofar as Australia is crammed so full of ideas that it basically includes everything in the world. But there's very little of the post-modern in the movie. It's achingly sincere; something that I suppose every one of Luhrmann's previous films have been (sincerity is what his scripts possess in lieu of originality), but never in such a straightforward way. That does mean that the film is occasionally a bit stilted and - I deeply resent this word - corny, but those are features, not bugs. This is basically a camp epic without any campiness.

The director's obvious enthusiasm for making the biggest Movie that he possibly can results in a grab-bag of lifts from countless other films - every epic historical love story you could name, as well as a host of American and Australian cowboy movies (incidentally, if I see another review expressing shock that there can be such a thing as an "Australian Western", I'll put my fist through the computer screen), and even some less-obvious cues like Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (both in the film's happily mystical celebration of Aboriginal culture, and in the casting of David Gulpilil, Australia's most prominent Aborigine actor and star of the earlier picture). The most important touchstone, though, is a Victor Fleming movie from 1939, and amazingly it's not fellow epic love story/war movie Gone with the Wind, but rather The Wizard of Oz (a title that would fit Luhrmann's movie rather well). That film's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" proves to be the most durable metaphor that Luhrmann trots out, referencing the detail of its lyrics in his film's dreamy, escapist tone, and using snatches of its melody throughout the film's soundtrack. And like that film, Australia is ultimately a story told in the form of a child's fantasy: in this case, the mixed-race Nullah (Brandon Walters), who narrates the film's events and provides the audience with both a surrogate and a very particular point-of-view.

The strange thing about Luhrmann, I find, is that despite the seeming contempt with which he views narrative originality, he's obviously infatuated with storytelling. Australia is as much as anything an exploration of how stories are constructed by the teller, almost as much as Moulin Rouge! was; both films aren't really the story of what happened, but the story we are being told by someone who has a fairly comprehensive but often limited knowledge of the events. This is where that little bit of post-modernism creeps in: Australia is an unabashed fiction, presented to us not as an historic document but as the recollections of a little boy (Nullah does not age across the film's two years, and he is the same age as narrator) whose experience is filtered through the very particular perspective of the Aborigine Dreaming, in which stories of the historic past are not important for their veracity, but for the truths they suggest. Which is, I guess, the best metaphor for Luhrmann's cinema that I can think of - realism bad, honesty good.

So that, I think, is what Australia wishes to be; leaving the question of how well it achieves its goals. Technically, if nothing else, it's fantastic. designed, like all of the director's films, by his wife Catherine Martin, it's the most prosaic-looking of all their collaborations, but Martin's evocation of a pre-War Australia boasts marvelously fussy attention to detail, particularly in the CGI-aided depiction of Darwin, here representing "the city" in opposition to Faraway Downs, "the wild" where Sarah and the Drover can be their truest selves. Cinematographer Mandy Walker doesn't have much to do besides make eye-popping vistas look eye-popping, but she does so with great aplomb - as a tourist video, Australia is incredibly gorgeous. True, the filmmakers have an unexpected tendency to favor close-ups, which work about as well as they ever do in 2.35:1 widescreen, and this does hamper the film's grand scope, but when it pops, it pops mightily; and there are a few hugely ambitious tracking shots that must be seen to be believed.

As far as the actors go, we start to run into the problems: Hugh Jackman gives the best performance of his career as an archetype who learns how to be a person, but Nicole Kidman is a bit flat. Let me put it this way: though she's never visibly pregnant onscreen, it's quite obvious that this is a woman who wasn't physically up to the demands the production put on her (her baby was born during production. It's not really the actress's fault, but she often seems a bit vacant and worn-out, never really putting much into the chemistry she's allegedly sparking with Jackman, nor selling the fish-out-of-water comedy that most of the first half-hour throws at her.

The other significant flaw is the film's story structure; you could perhaps say that it's too long, but I don't think that's quite right. Basically, there are three primary advances in the plot, with a couple of interludes that give the story a rough five-act structure. The first two acts blend together so seamlessly that you don't notice it happened until much later; but the shift into the final two acts (when the story skips ahead from 1939 to 1941) is a bit abrupt - I almost wish that Luhrmann had gone to the far end of old-fashioned storytelling and given the film an intermission; breaking the narrative flow off completely would have given the second half a much better chance to grow naturally rather than start with a sputter after the film has apparently resolved itself, a full hour from the end. It also might be argued that the exposition isn't handled with a great deal of grace; the opening feels a bit padded, and not just because of the back-and-forth chronology that Luhrmann uses to toss us into the action before explaining what's going on.

I certainly don't consider these to be deal-breaking problems, although it's enough to keep me from absolutely loving Australia in the same way that I wanted to. It's a tremendous entertainment made in a very specific temperament, one that plenty of people would like to discard outright; and I can't fault anyone for doing that. But for myself, I admire the defiant mustiness of the whole project, and I'd be a damned liar if I said that the film didn't succeed at its first and only goal, which is to dazzle us with its scope and kitchen-sink approach to storytelling. It is not a subtle movie, nor a very smart one, but it is grand. And I like to think that as tastes keep changing, the day will come when Australia is regarded as wonderfully sprawling, not just clichΓ©d and undisciplined.