This film begins with a disclaimer/ a warning that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers might see images or hear voices of deceased persons in the film.
The next part of the introduction speaks of the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. In 1941, Japanese forces moved down to Darwin, Australia. The territory was also a place where children of mixed race were being taken and used for service to whites. They are known as the "stolen generations".
One such mixed race child is Nullah, a young boy whose character serves as narrator for the film. He speaks excitedly, in broken english.
Beginning in 1939, a woman by the name of Sarah Ashley played by Nicole Kidman decides to travel from her home in England to visit Australia. Nicole Kidman is Australian but in the movie, she plays an English woman.
Mrs. Ashley or "Lady" Ashley is a woman of high society who walks with a parasol and has a classy way of dress. She decides to travel down to Australia to sell some of her husband's land, "Faraway Downs" because she feels they need the money.
She has plenty of luggage and there is suggestion that she will be too high maintenance to manage in "the outback". She stubbornly wants to show her confidence and her capabilities. She also expresses that when she arrives, she will be met by a trusted associate of her husband. The man she is expecting to meet is named Drover played by Hugh Jackman. He calls himself Drover because he drives cattle.
When Lady Ashley arrives, Drover is preoccupied, in the middle of a bar brawl. Lady Ashley is appalled as her luggage gets strewn around during the fight. The suitcases fall open and her packed clothing and underwear fly about for everyone to see. She is yelling "No!" and feels visibly humiliated. During this comedic scene, there is high pitched music in the background and we wonder if this is setting the tone for what the rest of the movie would be like.
Lady Ashley loads up in to a caravan with Drover and some others and she regards Drover as her husband Maitland Ashley's employee. Drover assures Lady Ashley that she is mistaken because he works on commission and no one hires him or fires him.
He is saying that he is helping Lady Ashley only because Maitland Ashley has promised him a lot of cattle.
As they drive, Lady Ashley looks out the window and marvels that she is seeing kangaroos for the first time. She exclaims, "how beautiful, how pretty" and then suddenly the same kangaroo she is looking at is shot dead in front of her eyes. Lady Ashley lets out an incredulous scream at the dose of reality. The kangaroo is loaded onto their truck and they continue on...
Next, the accountant, Kiplin Flynn is picked up and they are all stuffed in the front seats, uncomfortably close until they arrive at Faraway Downs.
Once they arrive, Lady Ashley is shocked and saddened to discover that her husband has been killed with a glass tipped spear. The scene quickly follows with the funeral for Maitland Ashley and the film audience is made aware that King George, an Aborigini witch doctor is the prime suspect. King George is also the grandfather of Nullah.
Lady Ashley is beside herself and is not sure what to do. It is not long before she learns that Mr. Fletcher, a once trusted associate has been stealing from her and helping the competition, King Carney of the Carney Cattle Company. Lady Ashley fires Fletcher and immediately seeks counsel from the accountant Flynn. The land at Faraway Downs is still workable and Lady Ashley no longer wants to sell. She's been deceived in many ways including being told by Fletcher that the water pump does not work. It is Nullah who brings everything to light by talking to Lady Ashley. Once she learns that her unbranded cattle are being stolen by Fletcher to give to the competition in the meat industry, she terminates him.
Kipling Flynn then suggests to Lady Ashley that she drive the cattle herself, "sell the cattle to te army and use the funds to get Faraway Downs back on its feet". He says, "You'll [then] go back to London and sit pretty for the rest of your life.
Lady Ashley knows that she will need a lot of help with driving the cattle so she asks Drover first. He uses the opportunity to take charge. He wants to be the boss in this adventure.
Drover explains that he needs a team of seven trained and experienced horse riders. The team ends up being made up of Drover, Daisy, Bandy, Magarri, Goolaj, Nullah who is a young boy but insists that he is capable, and Lady Ashley herself.
Nullah always seems to be running from the police/"coppers" and that is because he would be taken aways from his mother, Daisy if he were caught. In one scene, Nullah and Daisy hide in a tank in an attempt to keep the coppers at bay.
WARNING: SPOILERS below
Daisy drowns and that is the just one of the tragedies that will tug on audience emotions. In the Aboriginal culture, it is said that once someone passes away, their name can not be spoken again and Nullah is having a lot of difficulty grieving. Drover tells Lady Ashley that Nullah needs mothering and as a woman, Lady Ashley should get on with it then. Lady Ashley retorts that she is not good with children but still tries to approach Nullah to "offer [her] condolences". She loosens up a bit and tries to get Nullah's attention with the story of The Wizard of Oz and even sings a bit of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The song has recurring prominence throughout the music of the film after that moment.
After sometime, everyone regroups and Daisy is replaced by Flynn in the drove. He is warned by Drover to remain sober during their trip. One night, the team makes camp and tries to get some rest only to find that the villian, Fletcher uses fire to spook the cattle they have brought thus far. This becomes one of the most action packed scenes in the movie as the cattle run away and are heading to the edge of a cliff. It takes the whole team's skill to round them up and everyone experiences the danger. Flynn is trampled and killed in the stampede. Once again a key character is mourned.
Shortly after this point, the romance between Drover and Lady Ashley becomes a more prominent part of the story and Lady Ashley has renewed determination. After having come so far and experienced so much grief, the team can not give up and let Carney and Fletcher beat them out of selling their cattle to the army.
And so, the adventure continues. It includes King George guiding the team across the "Kuraman", a "Never Never Land".
The team finds success in getting the cattle herd sold to the army but that is not the end of the story. A rather long film, it continues on with Lady Ashley wanting to adopt Nullah. The war hits Darwin and the mixed race Aboriginal children are sent to live on "Mission Island". Nullah has been running and hiding, trying to avoid this situation throughout the film but alas he too is sent among the other children. Lady Ashley tries to stop this development but when she finds she can not, she instead promises Nullah that she will find him wherever he is.
Months go by and still Lady Ashley is unable to reunite with Nullah. There are several war movie action sequences. It is believed that Mission Island would be the first to be attacked and that the children will perish. Drover goes on an army drove for six months even though Lady Ashley asks that he stay with her. After he leaves, she feels defeated by Fletcher and begins working in an office. Soon she is believed dead from a war attack on her workplace but the actual woman who dies turned out to be Mrs. Fletcher.
Fletcher is bitter because his wife had agreed to take Lady Ashley's shift so that she could go in search for Nullah.
Drover returns, goes to Mission Island and rescues the children including Nullah. Magarri dies on the island as he creates a diversion for the Japanese army while Drover gets the children to safety. They get back to the mainland and reunite with Lady Ashley. Fletcher tries to kill Nullah but he is instead killed by King George who reminds Fletcher in his dying moments that Nullah is his son and King George's grandson. (Daisy was King George's daughter and once a drover on Fletcher's team. She had an affair with Fletcher and bore Nullah.)
When Lady Ashley, Drover and Nullah are safe and reunited like a family once again, King George, the Aboriginal 'magic man' or 'gulapa', returns to claim Nullah and take him on "Walkabout". Lady Ashley is attached to Nullah and was once reluctant to allow such a little boy to go wandering the land but now she says farewell to him and allows him to go participate in his ancestral traditions.
The film closes with the statement that the "assimilation policy" for mixed race indigenous Australians ended in 1973 and the Prime Minister issued an apology in 2008,the year this film was released.
I rate it: 3/5 *** stars
Running time: 165 minutes
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann (Director of Moulin Rouge)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Brandon Walters, Jack Thompson, David Gulpilil and others