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VENICE — Robyn Davidson’s remarkable journey in 1977 across 1,700 miles of Australian desert to the Indian Ocean with four camels and a dog is given a richly sensorial screen treatment in John Curran’s Tracks. Alternately haunting, inspiring and dreamily meditative, this is a visually majestic film of transfixing moods and textures. Its stealth-like emotional charge is fueled by unerring work from Mia Wasikowska, her affecting performance grounded in the fortitude and determination essential to such an undertaking, at the same time subtly keeping an open window to her character’s fragility.
Screening back to back in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, this long-awaited adaptation seems a natural for significant exposure through a top-tier specialty label.
First published in 1980, Davidson’s book became an instant modern classic of travel literature and a seminal nonfiction work for Australians in particular. It remains a terrific read not only for its immersive, warts-and-all account of an extraordinary experience, but also for the specificity of its time frame. The book documents a lone woman’s odyssey during the height of second-wave feminism and before national attitudes toward the rights of indigenous Australians had fully begun to be reshaped. It also takes to transporting extremes the abstract notion of an emotional, visceral and spiritual connectedness to the land that is an intrinsic part of Australia’s national psyche. This aspect is perhaps even heightened in Curran’s film.
The project labored in development with various producers and directors attached on and off for three decades, almost coming together in the early ‘90s with Julia Roberts in the central role. The prolonged gestation has benefited the film by bringing together a creative team that ensures authenticity and integrity.
Most notable among them is Curran, a New Yorker whose Australian ties date to his gritty 1998 debut feature Praise; and Wasikowska, a Canberra native who jumped virtually out of nowhere into a blossoming career built on consistently interesting choices. Required here to carry the film more single-handedly than in any role since Jane Eyre, she does arguably her most riveting screen work to date.
The principal challenge of filming Tracks is the highly interior nature of the book’s narrative. While the journey follows a topographical course across some of the most rugged country in the world and is punctuated by numerous incidents and encounters that leave a mark, the story fundamentally takes place inside Davidson’s head in ways that the writer often concedes defy articulation.
Marion Nelson’s script tackles that problem with judicious use of voiceover — extensive at first, then increasingly frugal as the trek gets underway. The screenplay also excavates elements of the central character’s childhood in scenes that drift into her consciousness. And it expands upon the presence of Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver), an American photographer who documented the journey for National Geographic magazine, his images acknowledged as a direct influence on the film’s story and visuals.
These minor concessions to make the book emotionally accessible onscreen could easily have become manipulative or sentimental but are distinguished by their restraint. The threat of an imposed “love interest” twisting the story is also averted thanks to the sly humor, bumbling nerdiness and slow-release reserves of sensitivity that Driver injects into his deft characterization.
The screenplay impresses initially in its smart compression of the drawn-out preparatory phase. This covers Robyn’s arrival in Alice Springs in 1976; her disheartening attempt to coexist with the local community in a pub bartending job before sexism and racism prompt her retreat; her rude awakening to the difficulties of acquiring and breaking in wild camels to carry her gear; her bruising experience on a camel farm before finding a seasoned herder willing to share vital knowledge; and her mixed feelings about having the trip funded by National Geographic.
That predicament of needing the money yet not wanting the intrusion of logorrheic Rick and his camera along while she’s on a quest for solitude forms one of the film’s central conflicts. In one telling moment, Robyn confesses that nice people confound her, and she finds it easier to deal with pigs, making well-meaning Rick an obstacle. She eventually resolves the situation by limiting his access to prearranged points along the route. Her spiky but gradually more accepting rapport with the photographer plays in nice contrast to her uncomplicated companionship for a central part of the journey with Mr. Eddie (Rolley Mintuma), an Aboriginal elder who guides Robyn across a stretch of country dotted with sacred sites. Funny and warm, Eddie is a fabulous character, a wily storyteller undeterred by the limits of their common language.
But the dual heart of the drama is Robyn and the landscape across which she travels. These eventually start to seem inextricably bound together as raw sunburn and weathering exposure give Robyn’s mottled skin the appearance of stone or earth.
Awesome in a sense that predates that word being generically co-opted in contemporary usage, the terrain is captured with spectacular yet refreshingly unfussy flair by cinematographer Mandy Walker, whose images of similarly remote Outback locations were among the more redeeming features of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.
Limber and graceful, Walker’s camera hugs close to the ground much of the time, making the cuts to aerial shots of parched mud flats, scrubby plains or craggy hill country look even more impressive. One particular shot of a vast expanse of brilliant white sand in which Robyn and her camels enter the frame like mobile ink blots is an absolute stunner. But the entire film harnesses the infinite spectrum of shimmering natural light, darkness and shadow in breathtaking ways. The vibrant pastels and scorched reds and browns of the color palette often evoke the classic desert landscapes of Aboriginal watercolorists from the Albert Namatjira school.
Alexandre de Franceschi’s fluid editing is another invaluable asset, making exquisite use of dissolves. Garth Stevenson’s score seems to take its cues directly from nature, undulating in sync with the film’s shifting rhythms. These contributions help Curran shape a film that is beautifully modulated at every turn, reflecting an onscreen quote from Davidson: “Camel journeys do not begin or end, they merely change form.”
Finally, special mention must go to the camels themselves, standing in for Davidson’s beloved beasts of burden: Dookie, Bubs, Zelly and the baby of the group, Goliath. Simultaneously goofy and serene, these animals are a singular screen presence, gazing stoically at their surroundings from behind girly lashes; snuffling, gurgling or roaring in protest when things don’t go their way — or simply chewing away inelegantly with their cartoonish mouths. Together with Robyn’s stalwart black Labrador, Diggity, these four-legged co-stars will captivate anyone who has ever considered the comparative rewards of animal company over human.
On a related note, the story resonates even more now than when the book was first published, given the difficulty in our hyper-connected age of going completely off the grid. Without getting all New Age-y, Tracks is a stirring depiction of the clarity and self-discovery that can come with isolation in nature, and probably the best film of its kind since Sean Penn‘s Into the Wild.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition; also in Telluride, Toronto festivals)
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Rainer Bock, Rolley Mintuma, John Flaus, Robert Coleby
Production company: See-Saw Films
Director: John Curran
Screenwriter: Marion Nelson, based on the book by Robyn Davidson
Producers: Emile Sherman, Iain Canning
Executive producers: Andrew Mackie, Richard Payten, Xavier Marchand
Director of photography: Mandy Walker
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Music: Garth Stevenson
Editor: Alexandre de Franceschi
Costume designer: Mariot Kerr
Sales: HanWay Films
No rating, 113 minutes.
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