NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Outback epic "Australia" is director Baz Luhrmann's first film since he dazzled audiences with "Moulin Rouge!" seven years ago, and critics are wondering if the $130 million drama can live up to its hype.
Early reviews are mixed but generally warm for the movie, which makes its U.S. premiere on Monday, and while some critics say it might be an Oscar contender, a best director Academy Award could prove tough -- not that Luhrmann seems concerned.
"In a world where there's a lot of fear, I hope you can come out of the cinema after a few hours and feel like its been an enriching experience," he said in an interview, referring to the global financial crisis. "If you get a little bit of that and you have been entertained, then that is enough for me."
Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, "Australia" is the fourth film from Luhrmann, who co-wrote and directed the two-hour, 40-minute epic that is the most expensive film ever made in his homeland Australia.
It tells the tale of an English aristocrat, played by Kidman, who inherits a sprawling Outback property, falls in love with a rugged "drover" or cowboy, played by Jackman, and fights to adopt Nullah, a mixed-race boy.
They join forces to drive 1,500 head of cattle hundreds of miles across stunning yet brutal landscape in a bid to save her property and find themselves caught in the Japanese wartime bombing of Australia's tropical northern city of Darwin.
"I would be very surprised if he even got a (Academy Award best director) nomination," New York Post chief film critic Lou Lumenick told Reuters. "The early critical reception is very mixed, and I think the movie will be a tough sell in the U.S."
But the 20th Century Fox film is generating Oscar buzz in the best picture and best original screenplay categories.
On the Los Angeles Times "The Envelope" buzzmeter, which ranks Academy Award chances according to the Times and other critics, "Australia" is currently seen fifth in the running for a best picture Oscar and third for best original screenplay.
The Movie City News' "Gurus o' Gold," another ranking of Oscar chances by a variety of critics, put "Australia" eighth in the running for best picture as of November 19.
Luhrmann burst onto the global stage in 1992 with "Strictly Ballroom," followed by "Romeo + Juliet" (1996) and "Moulin Rouge!" which combined have earned $390 million worldwide.
He was nominated for a best picture Academy Award for "Moulin Rouge!," which also starred Kidman, while his wife, Catherine Martin, was nominated for a best art direction-set direction for "Romeo + Juliet" and then went on to win two Oscars for her work on "Moulin Rouge!"
Luhrmann, who grew up in the country town of Herons Creek, north of Sydney, spent four years working on "Australia" and said the scale of it had made it a struggle every day.
"Not giving up," he said was his greatest challenge. "Not succumbing to the relentless and endless difficultly of it, it was just relentless, psychologically and physically."
Variety critic Todd McCarthy described the film as "a luxurious bumpy ride; like a Rolls-Royce on a rocky country road, it's full of bounces and lurches, but you can't really complain about the seat."
In London, The Times' Anne Barrowclough gave the film four out of five stars, saying "it describes an Australia of the 1940s that is at once compellingly, beautiful and breathtakingly cruel."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Cynthia Osterman