Australia opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle

When Baz Luhrmann directed Moulin Rouge in 2001, critics scoffed. The musical was a dinosaur; no point in trying to wake the dead. With Australia, a sprawling historical romantic melodrama, Luhrmann revives another once-robust genre. Unlike the current marketing trend of splintering audiences into age and gender ghettos, Australia seeks universal appeal. Layering the Western, the war movie, romance (and romantic comedy), hissable villains and meditations on race and history into an absorbing and eye-catching epic, Luhrmann attempts no less than a Gone with the Wind for the new millennium.

Luhrmann’s plot, taken from his own story and written with the assistance of three screenwritersnotably Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)follows the epic template, plunging into the big open spaces of frontier history. In 1939, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) arrives from England to her remote Australian cattle station, Faraway Downs, to find her husband murdered. She prevails upon the drover, called “Drover” (Hugh Jackman), to herd her cows to the waiting British Army supply ship.

“It’s a poor war that doesn’t make a decent patriot rich,” opines the reigning cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown, Aussie heartthrob of another generation). Sarah doesn’t flinch from challenging him and his despicable henchman, Fletcher (David Wenham). Complicating matters are the tangled relations between the Aboriginal and white residents, and the spiritual bond she has with a half Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who serves as the film’s narrator.

Implementing Luhrmann’s grand plan takes not just good actors, but movie stars with palpable screen charisma. Kidman can be chilly, but this part is perfect for her. She looks a bit like a lanky praying mantis with her pale skin and primly buttoned up period clothes (by Catherine Martin), but Sarah’s a woman with grit (not a bitch) whose soul expands in the rough landscape. Jackman, scruffy and buff, gets the full-on heroic treatment, with a Magnificent Seven-y musical theme and a pin-up pose by the flickering camp fire. He’s a rugged individualist in the Western (and Australian) tradition, but he responds to a headstrong woman worthy of his affections. These lively, smart, three-dimensional characters are worth caring about.

Nullah is the tale’s catalyst as well as a repository of mystical native lore. Played superbly by 11-year-old first-time actor Walters, he has a heavy narrative burden to carry. His shaman grandfather, King George, is played by the most famous of all Aboriginal actors, David Gulpilil. Discovered by Nicholas Roeg for Walkabout, Gulpilil brought international attention to a people who had little on-screen identity, and it’s a pleasure to see him mentor young Walters on- and presumably off-screen as well.

Australia is around three hours long (isn’t it time to reinvent the intermission, too?) and while it does have its longueurs, and two or three climaxes, its rip-roaring pace rarely flags. Luhrmann’s extraordinary eye is aided by a lot of CGI enhancement, embellishing a vast imaginary landscapealso like Gone with the Wind, which had more F/X shots than any film to that date.

Luhrmann says he dreamed of making an epic about his homeland echoing the films he loved as a boy, like Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur: thrilling yarns about resourceful people living in tumultuous times. His original tale has discreet romance (and old-style screen-filling close-ups) but also a terrifying cattle stampede and a Japanese invasion (reclaiming those genres, too, by being realistic, not sadistic, in the depiction of violence). One hopes Australia, like Moulin Rouge before it, resurrects a dormant genre, primed like a seed in the dusty outback to bloom again.