Tracks_2013

Australia / UK 2013

Director: John Curran

110 minutes

 

Most of us occasionally wish we could get away from other people for a while. Anyone who has deliberately gone seeking solitude, however, will have discovered just how elusive that is. Other people seem to turn up in the remotest places. So it was when, in 1975, Robyn Davidson set out to trek across the Australian desert with just three camels and her black labrador, Diggity, to keep her company. Tracks, written by Marion Nelson and directed by John Curran, is based on Davidson’s 1980 book recounting her epic journey.

We never truly learn what motivated this extraordinary trek, but a number of possible factors are provided. The opening scene hints at a traumatic childhood event, intercutting images of Robyn walking across a shimmering desert landscape with flashback images of the young Robyn making some kind of painful departure from home (later, we learn that her mother’s suicide and the failure of her father’s business meant she had to go and live with an aunt, leaving her father behind with the pet dog that was to be put down). In one monologue Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) refers to her dissatisfaction with the “indulgent” lifestyles of those around her, to her own inability to stick to anything she tries, and to a desire to be alone. In Alice Springs, the starting point for her journey, Davidson experiences misogyny and witnesses anti-Aborigine racism, all of which suggests further reasons for wishing to escape into the desert. Indeed, it is telling that the first person who behaves with kindness and generosity is a camel farmer of Afghan descent.

Having spent many months learning how to work with camels, Davidson still needs to raise funds to buy enough camels and to cover the cost of supplies. When her solitude is interrupted by a rather unwelcome visit from some friends and their companions, a National Geographic photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), leaves her the magazine’s contact details. He tells her they would jump at the chance to sponsor her trip in return for some journalistic coverage. Initially reluctant, she eventually gets in touch and the deal is made. Consequently, she balks when her journey is interrupted at intervals by the appearance of Smolan in his Land Rover, asking her to pose for photographs. At one point her relationship with a group of Aborigines is compromised when Smolan is spotted taking photographs of a secret ceremony. But is not just Smolan who disrupts Davidson’s journey. She is a curiosity for passing tourists, especially once the news of her adventure starts to spread, and eventually other journalists want in on the action.

Even in the outback Davidson is unable to full escape society’s absurdities. She is refused entrance to the area around Ayers Rock / Uluru on the basis that camels are not allowed in. When asked what the issue with camels is, the (white) warden tells her “This is a sacred site”. Meanwhile, camper vans full of gawping tourists with cameras are allowed through. Aboriginal society also turns out to be a man’s world. Davidson is told she cannot cross a sacred site unless accompanied by a (male) aboriginal elder. Fortunately, an elder by the name of Eddie (memorably played by Roly Mintuma) offers to help and the two strike up a good relationship, to the extent that she asks him to escort her a little further once they have left the site. When a dead kangaroo needs slicing for food, Eddie takes the knife from her, telling her that this is the man’s job. This is the one aspect of the film where I would have liked to have had some inkling of Davidson’s thoughts. It is hard to imagine that she would have approved of such male domination, yet she always appears respectful to the aborigines she meets. Later, when Davidson is about to cut up a kangaroo herself she hallucinates Eddie’s presence and stops what she is doing.

At one level, the film is a metaphor for life. It is about the necessity for compromise, cooperation, and the need for other people. Davidson has to compromise the purity of her ideal (a journey alone) in order to obtain the means to pursue it (the sponsorship deal, with its attendant consequences). She wants to be self-sufficient on her journey, but ultimately is only able to survive with the assistance of others. She wants to make her journey without other people, but strikes up important relationships with Eddie and Rick. At another level, Tracks is an odd-couple road trip movie, where Robyn Davidson and Rick Smolan are the mismatched couple. To begin with her proud, uncommunicative misanthropy is in stark contrast to his eager, puppy-dog chattiness. Eventually, however, she comes to value his presence and accept his help, and he feeds misinformation to his fellow journalists so that she is not being hounded by unwanted attention.

The Australian outback is, of course, a cinematographer’s dream, and Mandy Walker doesn’t disappoint in this regard, providing us with some stunningly beautiful images of this incredible part of the world. Garth Stevenson’s music soundtrack is rhythmic and hypnotic, but never intrusive. There is some mystery about the authorship of the screenplay. According to ABC News Marion Nelson is a pseudonym, and they speculate that the author might be the “fiercely private” Davidson herself. At the heart of everything is a splendid performance by Mia Wasikowska. Even though the film doesn’t attempt to pin down Davidson’s inner motivations, Wasikowska herself depicts a variety of emotions, by turn being tough, defiant, vulnerable, frightened, and confused. Even though we know Davidson survived her journey, the sense of danger that is portrayed is very real. One suspects that the location filming would have posed a real challenge, and this is the second strong performance this year by a female actor in a strange – to them – environment (the other being Scarlett Johansson wandering around Glasgow in Under The Skin).

As a survival story, Tracks makes for an interesting comparison with All is Lost, which was released just a few months ago. They are of course polar opposites, being, respectively, tales of desert and ocean survival, one featuring a woman as its central figure and the other a man (incidentally, Tracks passes the Bechdel Test – just). The central protagonist in each case is a tough loner with a minimal backstory (none in the case of All is Lost) whose survival ultimately depends on help from others. Both are very fine films, but for those who found the lack of other characters and lack of emotional variation a little hard to take in All Is Lost (I don’t count myself among such viewers) then Tracks should be rather more appealing in this regard. Certainly, I think it joins Walkabout and Wake In Fright as one of the great outback movies.

Rating: 9/10

 

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