Baz Luhrmann’s work has always been infused with an air of grandeur. An homage to his homeland, his 2008 film “Australia” is no different. Set just before the outbreak of World War II, the movie is a sweeping epic, comprising adventure, romance and war. It also attempts to address the country’s notorious race laws, which have affected the Aboriginal populations for centuries. When the 165-minute movie debuted, neither critics nor audiences knew what to make of it. Now, as more films are being converted into series, Luhrmann has created a serialized version, titled “Faraway Downs,” for Hulu. The show is told in six chapters and includes unseen footage from the original film. While the series boasts easily digestible sections running 45 minutes or less, the disappointing elements plaguing “Australia” remain the same.
“Faraway Downs” opens in September 1939, just as World War II begins. Continents away in England, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has grown frustrated with her philandering husband, who is in Australia selling their massive cattle ranch, Faraway Downs. Fed up, Sarah travels across the ocean to obtain a divorce and dispose of the endless acres sprawled across the Outback.
However, upon her arrival, Sarah is ill prepared in both disposition and dress, and after hearing the news of her husband’s untimely death, she becomes the caretaker of Faraway Downs. Nullah (Brandon Walters), a biracial Indigenous child whose family works on the grounds, immediately captures her heart. As Nullah shares the land’s secrets, Sarah learns of a plot by cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) to steal the estate. To save the property and earn a military contract, she teams up with rugged rancher Drover (Hugh Jackman). Sarah finds herself inexplicably drawn to the cattle herder despite his gruff demeanor.
As in the film, the main elements of “Faraway Downs” work fine. The scope of the series is vast, though it’s still overlong. Kidman and Jackman are vibrant and capable, and their electric chemistry sizzles on the screen. There’s a gorgeous score, villainous characters and a picturesque setting. Wide-eyed and innocent, Walters’ Nullah is perfectly cast. The main issue with the show is that it feels like it belongs to a different era.
If Luhrmann sought to make the Australian version of “Gone With the Wind,” containing all of the paternalism, magical Negros and clichés that beset the majority of Hollywood flicks during the Golden Age, “Faraway Downs” would be considered an accomplishment. From campy fistfights to bombings, nothing is surprising here because audiences have seen this story a million times before.
Luhrmann does try to explore Australia’s racist history and its Stolen Generations policy. Each chapter begins with a tribute to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their children, who were snatched by the government. The final installment, “War,” concludes by noting Australia ended its forced assimilation policy in 1973 and that in 2008, the prime minister offered an apology for the crimes committed. Yet, even with Nullah acting as the narrator in “Faraway Downs,” Aboriginal people are still spectators in their own lives. The extra footage does little to shift the series away from pure spectacle, where white folks are favored and people of color are sacrificed.
When “Australia” debuted, moviegoers had begun to weary of exaggerated blockbusters — like 2009’s “The Blind Side” and 2005’s “The Dukes of Hazzard” — that found refuge in national pride while glossing over barbarous racism. Though “Faraway Downs” inserts some much-needed intermissions, it was made for an audience living a century ago who were content to center an entire production on a charitable white woman who opened her heart to a beautiful brown boy.
“Faraway Downs” premieres Nov. 26 on Hulu.