Now: Australia (2008)
Then: Out of Africa (1985)
Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia tells the dramatic tale of a woman (Nicole Kidman) who discovers love down under. Along the way, she battles evil ranchers, a stampeding herd of cattle, racial intolerance and Japanese airplanes. Sydney Pollack’s Oscar-winning epic Out of Africa tells the somewhat autobiographical tale of a woman (Meryl Streep) who discovers love — and her own independence — in the British colony of Kenya. If they sound similar, it’s because the two have a lot in common — but which is more convincing, and which makes for a better movie?
Australia: Lady Sarah Ashley is a strong-willed English noblewoman who comes to Australia to run a farm with her philandering husband — only to discover that he’s dead.
Out of Africa: Karen Blixen is a strong-willed Danish baroness who comes to Africa to run a farm with her philandering husband — only to discover that he’s never home.
Advantage: Out of Africa. No one can match Meryl Streep at the height of her powers.
Australia: Drover (Hugh Jackman) is a rough ‘n tumble cattle driver who initially butts heads with, then falls in love with, our plucky heroine.
Out of Africa: Dennis Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) is a handsome big-game hunter and guide who initially butts heads with, then falls in love with, our plucky heroine.
Advantage: Neither. Drover is a walking cliché — all bicep, no personality — and Redford’s character remains a bit too enigmatic. They both look great in tuxes, though.
Australia: The opening crawl informs us of the plight of Australia’s “stolen children,” half-Aboriginal, half-white children caught between two worlds… and then proceeds to tell a story primarily about two white people falling in love.
Out of Africa: Baroness Blixen starts a school for native children on her property. Later, she refuses to move them off her property when she falls on hard times; as she points out, the land was theirs to begin with.
Advantage: Australia. It’s less self-congratulatory.
Australia: The awesome beauty of Australia is captured through the expensive computer wizardry of hundreds of F/X artists and technicians.
Out of Africa: The awesome beauty of Africa is captured through the expressive, Oscar-winning cinematography of David Watkin.
Advantage: Out of Africa.
Australia: For some reason, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” becomes a recurring refrain throughout the film.
Out of Africa: Denys has a quaint fondness for Mozart.
Advantage: Out of Africa. We’re not bludgeoned by its musical motif.
Australia: It’s a melodramatic, over-the-top ride that tries to do for historical epics what Moulin Rouge! did for movie musicals. But it’s utterly derivative and feels like several stories patched together into one uneven, overlong slog.
Out of Africa: Based on three Isak Dinesen books, it is literally several stories patched together, but it works beautifully.
And the winner is…: Out of Africa. There’s just no contest here.