Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, fleeting profanity and partial nudity
By Derrick Bang
We’ll probably never truly know why 25-year-old Robyn Davidson arrived in central Australia’s Alice Springs in 1975, and then spent two years learning how to train and manage the country’s remarkable wild camels.
|No matter how harsh the environment, Robyn (Mia Wasikowska) resolutely rises each|
morning and embarks on another daylong trek across the Australian Outback, accompanied
solely by four camels and her faithful dog.
She had endured a childhood marred by disappointment and tragedy — her mother having committed suicide when Robyn was only 11 — so it’s easy to believe that she had personal demons to exorcise, and things to prove to herself.
Nor are we apt to know what then prompted the young woman to embark on an ill-advised solo trek from Alice Springs to where the Indian Ocean lapped against the West Australian coast, accompanied only by four camels and her beloved black dog, Diggity. The 1,700-mile journey across the harsh and unforgiving Australian Outback took nine months, during which she easily could have died any number of times.
Some people embrace such trials for the sheer challenge; as the saying goes, they climb the mountain or cross the desert “because it’s there.” By her own admission, Davidson seems to have undertaken this trip as a journey of personal discovery: a way to become a better version of herself.
“When there is no one to remind you what society’s rules are,” she has said, reflecting back on her journey, “and there is nothing to keep you linked to that society, you had better be prepared for some startling changes.”
The truly remarkable thing is that director John Curran, scripter Marion Nelson and star Mia Wasikowska have managed to bring Davidson’s incredible journey to the big screen with equal emphasis on the glorious, majestically inhospitable Australian Outback itself, and the impact it had on this solitary traveler. Their film is both a beautifully composed glimpse of an often barren and yet beautiful land, and an intimate portrait of an angry young woman trying to find inner peace.
And she is angry, as we first encounter her ... impatient, brittle and quick to take offense, and yet also oddly vulnerable: a duality that Wasikowska conveys quite well. She nails Robyn’s surface contradictions: uncomfortable in the presence of other people, probably to the point of anthropophobia, and yet dependent upon them for jobs, favors and money. And resentful of that same dependence.
And yet when Wasikowska manages one of Robyn’s shy, uncertain smiles, it lights up her entire face: easy to see, then, why she and her unlikely expedition attracted the interest of the National Geographic Society, which agreed to fund her trip in exchange for photographic coverage.
But that comes a bit later. Aside from a fleeting flashback to childhood — the significance of which remains unexplained, for a time — we catch up with Robyn as she arrives in Alice Springs. The immediate goal is being trained to interact with the camels, to which end she apprentices with down-on-his-luck camel wrangler Kurt Posel (Rainer Bock), a nasty, petty little man who takes full advantage of his hard-working trainee.
Posel’s belligerence notwithstanding, Robyn does learn a lot ... but that does her little good when he ultimately cheats her. She subsequently fares much better with the more supportive Sallay Mahomet (John Flaus), a successful camel driver who takes a paternal interest in the young woman, even as he insists that her intentions are sheer folly.
The other hitch is financial: Robyn lacks money. Any money. She reluctantly contacts National Geographic and accepts their offer of support — for camel saddles, packs, supplies and other essentials — in exchange for documentation of the journey. She therefore tolerates the assigned “watcher”: young but already veteran photo-journalist Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), whom she had met via friends while he was in Alice Springs on assignment for Time Magazine.
Curran encourages Driver to overplay Rick’s goofy, nerdy nature: a mild misstep that’s initially distracting, because — as introduced — we can’t imagine how this guy ever could have become a photojournalist, let alone survived in the global hot spots where assignments have taken him. I suspect a desire for overemphasized contrast, since Rick’s cheerful bounce is everything the withdrawn Robyn loathes in a person.
Robyn tries to insist on a single photo session; Rick explains that Geographic wants far more. They eventually agree that he’ll meet up with her five times, and she’ll have to tolerate each of his exhaustive shoots.
Her attitude about his presence is intriguing. It’s far more than simply viewing Rick’s photo demands as irritating; she clearly resents his efforts to turn her into a model, complete with “cute” shots atop her camels. She seems to share the aboriginal dislike for cameras in general, as if she fears having part of her soul stolen or, worse, stripped bare and then displayed for the world to see.
The resulting dynamic is engaging, because Rick — despite being rebuffed at every turn — quickly comes to care for Robyn, even growing concerned on her behalf.
The same is true of Mr. Eddy, a respected Aboriginal elder — casually dubbed an “Old Fella” — who accompanies Robyn for a portion of the trip, in order to guide her away from sacred spots. Mr. Eddy is played by Rolley Minutma, a genuine elder whose native language is Pitjantjatjara, which Robyn works to teach herself.
(If the film’s press notes are to be believed, Minutma was thoroughly familiar with the story of Robyn’s journey, having heard it told and re-told in many of the indigenous communities that she visited.)
Minutma’s performance is enchanting, because his Mr. Eddy is a fascinating blend of regal dignity, spiritual wisdom and childlike enthusiasm. At times, he talks with unrestrained animation, leaving both Robyn and us viewers wondering what the heck he’s saying ... because Curran and Nelson wisely refrain from supplying subtitles. Robyn wouldn’t have understood him, at the time; sharing Wasikowska’s expressions of amused bewilderment gives us a better sense of her reaction.
I’m inclined to believe, as well, that Mr. Eddy serves as a “safe” bridge between Robyn’s stoic isolation and her slow-to-develop greater comfort around other people.
Not that everybody warrants such politeness. Physical hardship aside, one of the greatest problems Robyn faced, as news of her journey spread, was the unwanted onslaught of tourists and journalists tracking her down and wanting their own pictures. Nothing is worse than having something deeply personal — as Robyn’s trek clearly was — co-opted by strangers, and turned into fodder for pushy hangers-on.
Robyn’s few human companions aside, mention must be made of the film’s other strong characters: her four camels, each of whom displays considerable personality in odd and intimidating ways. Lest you fear it difficult to tell one from the next, that’s not a problem here. The dominant bull, Dookie, is the most aggressive and first to raise an alarm; the somewhat calmer Bubs is the lead camel, and the one Robyn rides, when she chooses not to walk.
Zeleika is smaller and — as Robyn discovers, shortly before she departs — pregnant: a bonus that provides her with a fourth camel, baby Goliath, and a means of further encouraging her little herd to stay together at all times.
All four of these oddly dignified creatures are by turns threatening and hilarious, and they make guttural but unexpectedly descriptive sounds that seem to convey a great deal about how they’re thinking and feeling at any given moment.
Nelson’s thoughtful, analytical script is drawn both from the May 1978 National Geographic cover story that blended Smolan’s photographs with Davidson’s text, and the full-length book (also called Tracks) that public acclaim encouraged her to write two years later. Cinematographer Mandy Walker similarly drew his lens choices and dusty, red-hued color palette from the images in Smolan’s 1992 photo record of Davidson’s trip, From Alice to Ocean. The results are, in a word, vibrant.
Bringing such a deeply personal saga from printed page to the big screen is a challenge under any circumstances, since we’re unable to share the writer’s thoughts and moods. It’s even tougher when we spend most of our time with a single character who doesn’t speak much under any circumstances, and not at all when on her own. And yet Curran’s film is never boring or tedious: quite the contrary. Wasikowska’s performance is riveting and laden with emotional complexity; she also looks strong enough, and wiry enough, to be placed believably in this harsh environment.
Inevitably, of course, we do need to get inside Robyn’s head; Curran relies on the occasional flashbacks, along with Wasikowska’s anguished features, to convey the despair to which this woman almost succumbed, likely on numerous occasions.
The Australian Outback has a rich cinematic history of similar “great journey” stories, and comparisons inevitably will be made to 1971’s fairy tale-esque Walkabout, and 2002’s politically freighted Rabbit-Proof Fence. All three are marvelous stories, and great reminders of the unexpected goals that people can achieve, when they put their minds to it.
Tracks is compelling, disturbing, romantic, occasionally mysterious and at times deeply heartbreaking. The real-world Davidson and Smolan have professed themselves pleased and satisfied by the way Curran’s film turned out, an opinion I’ve no doubt most viewers will share.