Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Australia's hope for Luhrmann epic

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Australia is putting on its best cinematic face for an epic movie which it hopes will revive its struggling tourism industry and replicate the so-called Crocodile Dundee effect, which saw thousands of international visitors heading to this far-flung planetary corner.

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman's onscreen romance is a true crowd-pleaser

Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the creative genius behind Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, Australia the movie - premiering in Sydney on Tuesday - showcases the country's best-known stars and most jaw-dropping landscape.

On top of that, the movie is that most genuine of rarities in the Aussie cinematic canon: an extravagant, big-budget, blockbuster of a film - in fact, 10s of millions over big-budget, if the production rumours are to be believed.

Luhrmann is known throughout the industry as the most exacting of perfectionists.

In recent weeks, the 46-year-old Oscar-nominated director has been in a frantic race to complete this homage to the land of his birth, with regular requests to the studio, 20th Century Fox, to push back the release date.

And there is a death in the ending of the film, by the way, it's a bit of a twist, and I won't give it away
Baz Luhrmann

Rumour factory that it is, the whispers out of Hollywood are that the original ending of the film did not test well with trial audiences, because it failed to end on an emotionally uplifting note.

Luhrmann himself has remained tight-lipped, but recently told the Los Angeles Times: “What's interesting is I wrote, I think, six endings in all the drafts I did, shot three, and I ended up concluding the film in a way in which I, probably more than anyone, least expected.

"And there is a death in the ending of the film, by the way, it's a bit of a twist, and I won't give it away.”

The film brings together some instantly recognisable Australian talent. Hugh Jackman plays the male lead, a rough-hewn cattle drover.

Nicole Kidman plays the object of his desire, a feisty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley.

There are parts for Bryan Brown (Cocktail, Gorillas in the Mist) and the great Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, The Man from Snowy River).

And the equally great Bill Hunter (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom), who is normally the first name on any Aussie cast list.

Riches to rags

Set on the eve of World War II, and filmed against the sundried backdrop of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, it recounts the story of Lady Sarah.

She makes the long journey to Australia having learnt she has inherited a suitably massive swathe of land.

Her guide, as she embarks on an epic journey across this unforgiving landscape, is Hugh Jackman.

Baz Luhrmann
Baz Luhrmann's film has already won the admiration of Oprah Winfrey

The couple, of course, fall in love, offering just the kind of improbable riches to rags romance that's sure to be a winner.

Another pre-premiere rumour has been that Fox wanted more love scenes between Jackman and Kidman.

In a country that is surprisingly needy of international recognition and validation, much is riding on Australia.

The tourism industry is hoping it will essentially become a feature-length advertisement: that Australia, the country, will become the real star of Australia, the movie.

The most recent Australian global tourism campaign, which asked: "Where the Bloody Hell Are You?," was deemed something of a disaster.

Overseas visitor numbers dropped 7.6% in September, and have been stagnant for the past couple of years.

So Tourism Australia has launched a tie-in global advertising campaign, with the catchline Come Walkabout.

So far, the pre-release buzz has the kind of electric crackle that illuminates the faces of producers and promoters.

Oprah Winfrey has been shown a rough-cut edit, and proclaimed it a delight - the most useful of endorsements, as America's incoming President could attest.

She did not hold back when Lurhmann appeared on her show: "Congratulations on your imagination, your vision, your creativity, your direction. Our hearts are all swelling because, my God, it's just the film we needed to see."

Australia opens in the UK on 26 December.

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