Luhrmann’s Australia Epic Picks Up Buzz from Oprah

SYDNEY ~ Baz Luhrmann hadn’t even finished his much-anticipated outback epic Australia when the world heard the news that could make the film a blockbuster – Oprah Winfrey loves it.

The acclaimed Australian director was still to put his finishing touches to the movie, which has been beset by production delays and shrouded in secrecy, when the US talkshow queen made her pronouncement.

“Our hearts are all swelling because, my God, it’s just the film we needed to see,” Winfrey said after watching a special preview of the sweeping romance set on the brink of WWII.

“I have not been this excited about a movie since I don’t know when,” she said during last week’s broadcast devoted entirely to the movie and its stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

From a set designed to look like an Australian outback cattle station for the show, Winfrey served up praise for Luhrmann, congratulating him on “your imagination, your vision, your creativity, your direction.”

Much is riding on the success of the movie, which has reportedly cost 20th Century Fox upwards of US$130 million and was shot on location in Sydney and the country’s inhospitable north.

The Australian film industry is hoping that it will result in a new-wave of US-studio backed movie-making here while tourism officials hope the romantic drama will inspire travel Down Under as Crocodile Dundee did in the 1980s.

The movie, which features an English aristocrat played by Kidman falling for the rough charms of a cattle drover played by Jackman as they cross the country, will likely benefit visually from the stunning scenery of Australia’s north.

Tom O’Neil, entertainment blogger for Los Angeles Times’ film awards website The Envelope, says that Oprah could be enough to sway opinion.

“Everyone trusts Oprah,” he said.

“American film critics had been dreading seeing Australia because it looks like a dud.

“It’s the only major Oscar contender not shown to any journalists. So that makes us suspicious that there’s something really wrong with this movie.

“The release of the trailer didn’t help anything at all because it’s such a bland teaser for the film that it didn’t suggest there might be anything extraordinary here. Everyone just kind of shrugged, ‘Oh, it’s Out of Africa 25 years later.’

“And what Oprah managed to do was flip that totally for Baz.”

O’Neil said the “consistently clever and inventive filmmaker” behind Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! could be in line for an Academy Award in 2009 if the film lives up to expectations.

“Baz Luhrmann is holding the biggest Oscar IOU of modern times,” he said.

“This guy was snubbed at the Oscars for Moulin Rouge!. They owe this guy, and if this movie measures up to his potential for greatness, the academy would love to heap recognition on him and make up for past oversights.”

“The expectation is fantastic,” agrees Geoff Brown, executive director of the Screen Producers’ Association of Australia.

Brown said the Australian film industry was hoping the movie not only encouraged Hollywood to heap praise on Luhrmann but to bring more film production Down Under.

While Hollywood has acknowledged Australian expertise in filmmaking – following movies such as The Matrix and Happy Feet – this is the first time that an Australian has had full creative control over such a big budget movie made here, he said.

“The scale, the scope, the vision is very much Baz but it will for the first time, I believe, showcase Australia as a film producing country,” Brown said.

“It is a calling card to the world in our view about we can do.”

Brown said he was not concerned that Luhrmann was still finalising the movie just four days before the film’s simultaneous premieres on Tuesday in the places where it was shot – Sydney, the northern city of Darwin and the outback Queensland town of Bowen.

“Baz hasn’t finished any of his films,” he said. “I think he is still working on Moulin Rouge!. It’s just his nature. He’s a perfectionist.”

Australia is due for release in Australia on November 26.

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