In 1939, Lady Sarah Ashley travels from England to northern Australia to force her philandering husband to sell his faltering cattle station, Faraway Downs. Her husband sends an independent cattle drover, called "Drover", to transport her to Faraway Downs.
Lady Sarah's husband is murdered shortly before she arrives, and the authorities tell her that the killer is an Aboriginal elder, "King George". Meanwhile, cattle station manager Neil Fletcher is trying to gain control of Faraway Downs, so that Lesley 'King' Carney will have a complete cattle monopoly, giving him negotiating leverage with an Australian army officer, Captain Dutton, who wants to buy the cattle.
The childless Lady Sarah is captivated by the boy Nullah, who has an Aboriginal mother and a white father. Nullah tells her that he has seen her cattle being driven onto Carney's land — in other words, stolen from her. Because of this Fletcher mistreats Nullah and threatens him and his mother, so Lady Sarah fires Fletcher and decides to try to run the cattle station herself. When Nullah and his mother hide from the authorities in a water tower, his mother drowns. Lady Sarah comforts Nullah by singing the song "Over the Rainbow" from the film The Wizard of Oz. Nullah tells her that "King George" is his grandfather, and that like the Wizard, he too is a "magic man".
Lady Sarah persuades Drover to take the cattle to Darwin for sale. Drover is friendly with the Aborigines, and therefore shunned by many of the other whites in the territory. It is revealed that he was married to an Aboriginal woman, who died after being refused medical treatment in a hospital because of her race. Lady Sarah also reveals she is unable to have children.
Drover leads a team of six other riders, including Lady Sarah, Drover's Aboriginal brother-in-law Magarri, Nullah, and the station's accountant Kipling Flynn, to drive the 1,500 cattle to Darwin. They encounter various obstacles along the way, including a fire set by Carney's men that scares the cattle, resulting in the death of Flynn when the group tries to stop the cattle from stampeding over a cliff. Lady Sarah and Drover fall in love, and she gains a new appreciation for the Australian territory. The team drive the cattle through the dangerous Never Never desert. Then, when at last delivering the cattle in Darwin, the group has to race them onto the ship before Carney's cattle are loaded.
Afterwards, Lady Sarah, Nullah, and Drover live together happily at Faraway Downs for two years. Meanwhile, Fletcher kills Carney, marries his daughter Cath Carney, takes over Carney's cattle empire, and continues to menace Lady Sarah. It is established that Fletcher was the actual murderer of Lady Sarah's husband, and is also Nullah's father.
Nullah is drawn to go on a walkabout (a rite of passage) with his grandfather "King George", but is instead taken by the authorities and sent to live on Mission Island (a fictitious island, but inspired by Bathurst Island) with the other half-Aboriginal children (dubbed the "Stolen Generations"). Lady Sarah, who has come to regard Nullah as her adopted son, vows to rescue him. Meanwhile, she works as a radio operator in Darwin during the escalation of World War II. When the Japanese attack the island and Darwin in 1942, Lady Sarah fears that Nullah has been killed.
Drover, who had quarrelled with Lady Sarah and left, returns to Darwin and hears (mistakenly) that she has been killed in the bombing. Drover learns of Nullah's abduction to Mission Island, and goes with Magarri and a young priest to rescue him and the other children. Meanwhile, Lady Sarah is about to be evacuated, but when Drover and the children sail back into port at Darwin, and Nullah plays "Over the Rainbow" on his harmonica, Lady Sarah hears the music and the three are reunited.
Fletcher, distraught at the ruination of his plans and at the death of his wife killed during a Japanese air strike, attempts to shoot Nullah, but is speared by King George and falls dead. Lady Sarah, Drover, and Nullah return to the safety of remote Faraway Downs. There, King George calls for Nullah, who returns to the Outback with his grandfather.Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat who inherits the cattle station Faraway Downs after the death of her husband, Maitland Ashley.
Hugh Jackman as Drover, a drover who helps Lady Sarah Ashley move the cattle across the property.
David Wenham as Neil Fletcher, a station manager who plans to take Faraway Downs from Lady Sarah Ashley.
Bryan Brown as Lesley 'King' Carney, a cattle baron who owns much of the land in northern Australia.
Jack Thompson as Kipling Flynn, an alcoholic accountant who enjoys a luxurious lifestyle.
David Gulpilil as King George, a magic tribal elder, grandfather of Nullah.
Brandon Walters as Nullah, a young Aboriginal boy whom Lady Sarah Ashley finds at Faraway Downs.
David Ngoombujarra as Magarri, the Drover's brother-in-law and best friend.
Ben Mendelsohn as Captain Emmett Dutton, a Darwin-based Australian Army officer in charge of beef supply.
Essie Davis as Catherine 'Cath' Carney Fletcher, wife of Neil Fletcher and daughter of King Carney.
Barry Otto as Administrator Allsop, the Australian government's representative.
Kerry Walker as Myrtle Alsop.
Sandy Gore as Gloria Carney, King Carney's wife, and Catherine's mother.
Ursula Yovich as Daisy, the mother of Nullah.
Lillian Crombie as Bandy Legs.
Yuen Wah as Sing Song, a Cantonese chef at Faraway Downs.
Angus Pilakui as Goolaj Baloong, the Drover's second colleague and friend.
Jacek Koman as Ivan, the saloonkeeper and innkeeper in Darwin.
Tony Barry as Sergeant Callahan, the head of the Northern Territory police.
Ray Barrett as Ramsden, an old friendly fellow.
Max Cullen as Old Drunk.
Originally, Baz Luhrmann was planning to make a film about Alexander the Great starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman, with a screenplay by David Hare. The director had built a studio in the northern Sahara but Alexander made by Oliver Stone was released first and after several years in development, Luhrmann abandoned the project to make a film closer to home. The visual effects were done by the Animal Logic films and The LaB Sydney. Luhrmann spent six months researching general Australian history. At one point he considered setting his film during the First Fleet, 11 ships that sailed from Britain in 1787 and set up the first colony in New South Wales. The director wanted to explore Australia's relationship with England and with its indigenous population. He decided to set the film between World Wars I and II in order to merge a historical romance with the Stolen Generations, where thousands of mixed-race Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families by the state and integrated into white society. Luhrmann has said that his film depicts "a mythologised Australia".
In May 2005, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman entered negotiations to star in an untitled 20th Century Fox project written by director Baz Luhrmann and screenwriter Stuart Beattie, with Luhrmann directing the film. For her role, Kidman learned to round up cattle. In May 2006, due to Crowe's demanding personal script approval before signing onto the project, Luhrmann sought to replace the actor with Heath Ledger. Crowe said he didn't want to work in an environment that was influenced by budgetary needs. About this casting issue, Luhrmann said, "it was hard pinning [Crowe] down. Every time I was ready, Russell was in something else, and every time he was ready, I would be having another turmoil". The following June, Luhrmann replaced Crowe with actor Hugh Jackman. In January 2007, actors Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, and David Wenham were cast into Australia. In November 2006, Luhrmann began searching for an actor to play an Aboriginal boy of 8–10 years old and by April 2007, 11-year-old Brandon Walters was cast into the role of Nullah. Academic D. Bruno Starrs has written about how this casting choice and the decision to have the character of Nullah narrate the film reinforce its "left-leaning" message regarding the 'Stolen Generations'.
The untitled project was scheduled to begin production in September 2006, but scheduling conflicts and budget issues postponed the start of production to February 2007. In November 2006, Luhrmann explored The Kimberley to determine the amount of production to be shot there. In December 2006, Bowen was chosen as a filming location for a third of the production, portraying the look of Darwin. Bowen was chosen as a prospect due to the financing of $500,000 by the Queensland government. In April, Kununurra was chosen as another location for Australia, this time to serve as Faraway Downs, the homestead owned by Kidman's character. Entire sets were built from scratch, including a stand-alone set in the Queensland town of Bowen, the re-creation of war scenes near Darwin Harbour, and the construction of an outback homestead in Western Australia.
Academy Award-winning costume designer Catherine Martin did extensive research for the film's outfits, studying archival images and newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s Australia. She also interviewed descendants of the original Darwin stockmen in order to find out if they "wore socks with his boots when he rode a horse, that's something you either get through a snapshot, or something you have to go talk to the people who lived there about". The Asian-inspired costumes of the film were intended to evoke the romanticism of the era, and one of the centrepieces of the film's costuming is a red chrysanthemum-printed Chinese cheongsam or qipao that was made for Nicole Kidman's character. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design.
The director planned to begin filming in March 2007. However, principal photography began on 30 April 2007 in Sydney, and Kidman found out that she was pregnant. She instantly withdrew from her next film, The Reader. Afterwards, the production moved to Bowen on 14 May. Filming in Kununurra was a gruelling experience for the cast and crew with temperatures soaring to 43 °C (109 °F) which, one day, caused Kidman to faint while on a horse. In addition, she worked 14- and 15-hour days while dealing with morning sickness. While shooting in a remote region of Western Australia, the shoot had to be rescheduled when the Faraway Downs set, the homestead central to the film's story, was reduced to mud from torrential rain – the first in 50 years. The cast and crew went back to Sydney to shoot interior scenes until the expensive set dried out. In addition, at one point, the entire country's horses were in lock down over equine flu. Scenes using Darwin harbour were shot in July 2007, with parts of Stokes Hill Wharf blocked to the public and mini buses used to ferry tourists past the film set. Filming lasted five months, wrapping up at Fox Studios, Sydney, on 19 December 2007. In late April, Luhrmann titled his project Australia. Two other titles that he considered for the film had been Great Southern Land and Faraway Downs. On 11 August 2008, eight months after filming wrapped, several members of the cast and crew were back at Fox Studios, Sydney, to film pick up shots.
Two weeks before the film's premiere, the Daily Telegraph erroneously reported that Luhrmann gave in to studio pressure after "intense" talks with executives and re-wrote and then re-shot the ending of Australia for a happier conclusion after "disastrous reviews" from test screenings. To counter these negative reports, the studio had Jackman and Kidman promoting Australia on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which dedicated an entire episode of the program to the film, and Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman spoke to the Los Angeles Times where he described the Telegraph article as "patently nonsensical. It's all too typical of the way the world works today that everybody picked up an unsourced, anonymous quote-filled story in a tabloid from Sydney and nobody ever bothered to check to see if it was accurate". Rothman also said that Luhrmann had final cut on his film. The director admitted that he wrote six endings in the drafts he authored, and shot three of them.
David Hirschfelder composed the score to Australia. Interpolated musical numbers include the jazz standards "Begin the Beguine", "Tuxedo Junction", "Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)", and "Brazil". Edward Elgar's "Nimrod" from "Enigma" Variations is heard in the final scene of the film. Luhrmann hired singer Rolf Harris to record his wobble board for the opening credits, and Elton John composed and performed a song called "The Drover's Ballad", to lyrics by Luhrmann, for the end credits. Also used in the end credits is "By the Boab Tree", a song nominated for a 2008 Satellite Award, again with Luhrmann lyrics, performed by Sydney singer Angela Little. Little's rendition of "Waltzing Matilda" completes the end credits in some versions of the film. The jazz sound track to "Australia" was performed by the Ralph Pyle big band with clarinet solos by Andy Firth.
Tourism Western Australia spent $1 million on a campaign linked with the release of Australia in the United States, Canada, Japan, Europe and South Korea that ties in with an international Tourism Australia plan. Concerned about the recession and fluctuating international fuel prices, the tourism industry hoped that Luhrmann's film would deliver visitors from all over the world in the same kind of numbers that came to the country following the 1986 release of Crocodile Dundee, and follow the significant increase in visitors to New Zealand since 2001 after the release of The Lord of the Rings films. Federal Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson said, "This movie will potentially be seen by tens of millions of people, and it will bring life to little-known aspects of Australia's extraordinary natural environment, history and indigenous culture". Tourism Australia worked with Luhrmann and 20th Century Fox on a publicity campaign titled, "See the Movie, See the Country", based on movie maps and location guides, to transform the film into "a real-life travel adventure". In addition, the director made a $50 million series of commercials promoting the country.
Australia received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that as of 16 May 2017, 55% of critics gave the film a positive write-up, based upon a sample of 210, with an average score of 5.9/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Built on lavish vistas and impeccable production, Australia is unfortunately burdened with thinly drawn characters and a lack of originality." At Metacritic, which assigns a normalised rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film has received an average score of 53, based on 38 reviews, denoting "mixed or average reviews."
Jim Schembri in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne) wrote, "The film is fine, and never boring but, boy, is it overlong," and added, "More importantly, local films with black themes or major indigenous characters tend to do poorly, so if Australia succeeds here it could represent a breakthrough. We've always had trouble dealing with racial issues on film, so, in that regard, the film could be a landmark." Claire Sutherland, in her review for the Herald Sun (Melbourne) wrote, "A love letter to the Australian landscape and our history, Australia has international blockbuster written all over it", and Sydney's The Daily Telegraph wrote, "Kidman's screen presence is nothing short of radiant." In his review for The Australian (Sydney), David Stratton wrote, "It's not the masterpiece that we were hoping for, but I think you could say that it's a very good film in many ways. While it will be very popular with many people I think there's a slight air of disappointment after it all. Despite its flaws — and it certainly has flaws — I think Australia is an impressive and important film." Mark Naglazas of The West Australian (Perth) accused positive reviews from News Ltd press outlets of being manipulated by 20th Century Fox, as they are all owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, calling Australia a film of "unrelenting awfulness" that "lurches drunkenly from crazy comedy to Mills and Boonish melodrama in the space of a couple of scenes".
Chris Tookey, in his review for the Daily Mail (London) wrote, "Kidman and Jackman have great sexual chemistry, as well as the glamour of Forties cinema idols." He also rated the film the maximum five stars. The News of the World (London) followed suit by rating the film with five stars, the reviewer Robie Collin praised the casting and camerawork; "The jaw-dropping, picture postcard camerawork, that will have your eyes scouring each scene for every last delicious detail. The uproarious comic interludes (Nicole’s rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and the build-up to it, is one of the best-played comic set pieces of the year). The magnetic and irksomely handsome Hugh Jackman, the undisputed star of the show." Anne Barrowclough of The Times (London) gave the film four out of five stars, and states the film defies expectation and "in what turns out to be a multi-layered story it describes an Australia of the 1940s that is at once compellingly beautiful and breathtakingly cruel". Bonnie Malkin of The Daily Telegraph (London) stated: "Local critics had worried that the much-anticipated film Australia would present to the world a series of time-honoured Antipodean clichés. Their fears were well founded".
Megan Lehmann, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, said that the film "defies all but the most cynical not to get carried away by the force of its grandiose imagery and storytelling", and it is "much less earnest than the trailer suggests, layered with a thin veneer of camp and a nod and a wink to accompany the requisite Aussie clichés", and the bottom line is "In epic style, Baz Luhrmann weaves his wizardry on Oz". Roger Ebert gave the film 3 stars out of 4, noting "Baz Luhrmann dreamed of making the Australian Gone with the Wind, and so he has, with much of that film's lush epic beauty and some of the same awkwardness with a national legacy of racism". David Ansen, in his review for Newsweek, wrote, "Kidman seems to blossom under Luhrmann's direction: she's funny, warm and charming, and the erotic charge between her and the gruff, hunky Jackman is delicious. In a solemn season, Australia's bold, kitschy, unapologetic artifice is a welcome respite". In her review for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, "this creation story about modern Australia is a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion". Andrew Sarris, in his review for the New York Observer, wrote, "Australia is clearly a labor of love, and a matter of national pride. It is also a bit of a mess. I must confess that I might have been harder on Mr Luhrmann's film if I had not remained entranced by Ms Kidman ever since I first saw her in Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm in 1989; in my opinion, she has lost none of her luster in the 20 years since". In his review for Time, Richard Schickel wrote, "Have you seen everything Australia has on offer a dozen times before? Sure you have. It's a movie less created by director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann than assembled, Dr Frankenstein-style, from the leftover body parts of earlier movies. Which leaves us asking this question: How come it is so damnably entertaining?" Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, opines that, "in its heart of hearts Australia is an old-fashioned Western - a Northern, if you will - and all the more enjoyable for it." Nick Rogers, of FilmYap, adds that, "Luhrmann mythologized his homeland as American directors like John Ford did with Westerns — dramatic-license exaggerations that pay off in droves." Ann Hornaday, in her review for the Washington Post, wrote, "A wildly ambitious, luridly indulgent spectacle of romance, action, melodrama and revisionism, Australia is windy, overblown, utterly preposterous and insanely entertaining". In her review for Salon.com, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, "The second half of Australia, Luhrmann's attempt to pull off a wartime weeper, is so aggressively sentimental that it begins to feel more like punishment than pleasure. I left Australia feeling drained and weakened, as if I'd suffered a gradual poisoning at the hands of a mad scientist".
The film had better box office success in overseas markets and a disappointing gross in the United States — a pattern similar to Luhrmann's three previous films. As of November 2009, the film has grossed $211,342,221 in its worldwide releases. In Australia, the film grossed A$6.37 million in its opening weekend, setting the record for the highest grossing opening weekend for an Australian film and bumping the latest James Bond film Quantum of Solace to second place. Australia performed less well in the U.S., where it surprised box office analysts by opening only at #5, behind Quantum of Solace, Twilight, Bolt, and Four Christmases, and grossed $20 million opening weekend. However, Fox officials were reportedly happy with the numbers, as they said they were expecting only an $18 million opening gross for the film. They further pointed out that Baz Luhrmann's other films, like Moulin Rouge!, Strictly Ballroom, and Romeo + Juliet, started slowly and then built momentum. Australia eventually grossed $49,554,002 in the U.S., 23.4% of its total worldwide gross.Australia's ticket sales outside the United States are $161,788,219 from 51 countries. It opened at No. 1 in Spain, France, Australia, and Germany, and at No. 3 in Britain. Australia grossed $37,555,757 at the box office in Australia. The DVD was released in the United States on 3 March 2009, opening at #2, and sold 728,000 units in the opening weekend, translating to revenue of $12.3 million. Australia sold almost two million DVDs in one month, 80% of what the studio predicted it would sell altogether. As of 15 November 2009, Australia had sold 1,739,700 units in the U.S., for a revenue of $27.9 million. Since being released in Australia, the DVD has sold double what the studio expected.