As for the film itself, the latest work by Baz Luhrmann ("Strictly Ballroom," "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet") is an enormously ambitious opus that for the most part manages to cover the flaws in its canvas with stunning cinematic artistry. Set at the turn of the last century, the story concerns aspiring writer Christian (Ewan McGregor), who finds himself drawn into the world of the seedy and spectacular Moulin Rouge nightclub.
There he meets the hauntingly beautiful courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). Much to her own surprise, Satine is equally drawn to Christian, and their courtship is played out in a love medley that references everything from Elton John ("Your Song") to the Beatles ("All You Need is Love.")
Naturally, there are complications: Satine has been promised by Moulin Rouge proprietor Zidler (a terrifically eccentric Jim Broadbent) to a wealthy potential investor (Richard Roxburgh) who has demanded exclusive rights to the courtesan in exchange for his agreeing to underwrite Christian's play. Add a diagnosis of consumption to the mix, and you've got "La Bohème" played out as a modern musical.
Technically, "Moulin Rouge" is nothing short of dazzling. Its production design by Catherine Martin and costumes by Martin and Angus Strathie are velvety and luxurious, recalling the heyday of studio musicals and then some. Donald McAlpine's camera work aptly captures the film's contrasting milieus, speeding up to show the frenetic Moulin Rouge, slowing down to show the deepening relationship between Satine and Christian. Songs are expertly chosen and performed with a naturalism that again recalls classic musicals, and dance sequences choreographed by John O'Connell to resemble Busby Berkeley numbers.
The film is generally well acted, with particular praise due the versatile McGregor, who enriches the material with a heartfelt, empathetic performance that renders Christian's earnestness entirely credible. Kidman, for her part, is sublime to look at, but there's a coldness to her Satine that detracts from the pivotal romantic scenes. Supporting turns are fine, though John Leguizamo's Toulouse Lautrec is rather more annoying than he should be.
As spectacular as it is in so many ways, "Moulin Rouge" never quite warms the heart as much as it dazzles the eye. But that's not to say it's a complete triumph of style over substance; it's just that what one takes away from it is a powerful impression of Luhrmann as a technically dexterous visual virtuoso. Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and John Leguizamo. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. Produced by Martin Brown, Baz Luhrmann and Fred Baron. A Fox release. Musical. Rated PG-13 for sexual content. Running time: 126 min