David Strat­ton and Evan Wil­liams give their ver­dicts

The Weekend Australian - Review - - CONTENTS -

MANY of us know the story. In 1977, writer and ad­ven­turer Robyn David­son set out from Alice Springs on a 2700km trek across the cen­tral Aus­tralian desert — a jour­ney that would take her more than nine months and cover some of the world’s most in­hos­pitable ter­rain be­fore she reached the shores of the In­dian Ocean. For much of the time her only com­pan­ions were four camels and her pet dog. It was a his­toric feat of courage and en­durance. David­son be­came an in­stant celebrity, and her 1980 book about her ex­pe­ri­ences was an in­ter­na­tional best­seller. Tracks is di­rec­tor John Cur­ran’s long-awaited Aus­tralian film about her in­cred­i­ble jour­ney.

The great unan­swered ques­tion has al­ways been: why? Why has it taken so long for David­son’s story to reach the screen? And more to the point, why did she un­der­take such a lonely and per­ilous es­capade in the first place? It is a ques­tion she has never found easy to an­swer. I heard her say in a ra­dio in­ter­view re­cently that she couldn’t re­mem­ber ex­actly why she did it but had “an in­stinc­tive un­der­stand­ing” that she wanted to do some­thing to “es­tab­lish her­self as an in­di­vid­ual”. Well, yes, I sup­pose so. But for me the big ques­tion isn’t why, but how? How could such a mar­vel­lous story, which seemed to have ev­ery­thing go­ing for it, re­sult in such a flat and dis­ap­point­ing movie?

There were some great tal­ents at work here. Amer­i­can-born Cur­ran be­gan his Aus­tralian ca­reer with Praise, a star­tlingly hon­est por­trayal of Bris­bane low-life with a coura­geous per­for­mance from Sasha Horler as a junkie sex-ad­dict. In Tracks, an al­to­gether more whole­some af­fair, David­son is played by the charis­matic Mia Wasikowska, one of the cur­rent crop of fe­male Aussie stars mak­ing it big on the global scene, and per­haps best known for the 2011 film Jane

Eyre. The cin­e­matog­ra­pher for Tracks is the ac­claimed Mandy Walker, who beau­ti­fully evokes the harsh con­tours and sub­dued ochre tones of the out­back land­scape. That land­scape may be the true star of the film — that end­less, dusty cir­cum­fer­ence of flat hori­zons and rocky out­crops. And full marks, of course, to the camels. The old joke that a camel is a horse de­signed by a com­mit­tee is start­ing to look rather un­fair. These fa­mously un­gainly crea­tures pos­sess a strangely lov­able qual­ity, even a cer­tain lurk­ing el­e­gance, de­spite all that grunt­ing and snort­ing they go on with.

The cin­ema is rich in sto­ries of en­durance and sur­vival. For sheer dar­ing I’d com­pare David­son’s feat to that of sci­en­tist-ad­ven­turer Thor Hey­er­dahl, who sailed from Peru to Poly­ne­sia on a bal­sawood raft in the 1940s to test his the­ory about Pa­cific Ocean cur­rents. Like David­son, Hey­er­dahl wrote a best­selling book and sold his story to Na­tional Ge­o­graphic; it was told, most re­cently, in the 2012 film Kon-Tiki. Cur­rently in cin­e­mas is the Robert Red­ford sea­far­ing ad­ven­ture All is Lost, and on DVD you can watch the story of Aron Ralston, the hero of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, about a a canyoneer trapped un­der a fallen boul­der in a re­mote canyon in Utah. Ralston, too, wrote a best­selling mem­oir, and Boyle’s film faced much the same chal­lenge as Tracks: how to en­gage an au­di­ence with a tale of hard­ship and pri­va­tion, set against an un­vary­ing back­ground, with one char­ac­ter to speak of, and a min­i­mum of di­a­logue?

Which brings me back to that why ques­tion. At least we know why Hey­er­dahl un­der­took his voy­age: he was on a sci­en­tific mis­sion. And we know why Ed­mund Hil­lary set out to climb Ever­est, and why Neil Arm­strong and his crew set off for the moon. These were jour­neys of ex­plo­ration that no one had ac­com­plished be­fore. I grant there is there is a cer­tain glory in the idea of sim­ple, un­mo­ti­vated risk-tak­ing — that some­thing mad and brave is worth do­ing for its own sake — but it’s the sort of glory that’s hard to con­vey. The idea of pur­pose gives strength and im­pe­tus to a story, and it’s what’s miss­ing in Tracks. We long for Robyn to reach that In­dian Ocean shore, not so much to vin­di­cate her reck­less­ness and give point to her jour­ney but to get it over with. There are times when

Tracks seems like a very long film in­deed. We are told lit­tle about Robyn her­self — her his­tory, her fam­ily, her back­ground (the odd child­hood flash­back ex­cepted). Per­haps it’s all in the book. Ar­riv­ing more or less pen­ni­less in Alice Springs, she’s taken on as an un­paid labourer by a mean-spir­ited camel-breeder, Kurt Posel (Rainer Bock), who thinks she’s mad to con­tem­plate cross­ing the desert but prom­ises to give her two camels for the jour­ney. Fed up with be­ing ex­ploited, Robyn quits her job, ac­quires her camels from an­other, kindler, source and sets about train­ing them. When, des­per­ate for cash, she agrees to sell her story to Na­tional

Ge­o­graphic, the mag­a­zine sends along a pho­tog­ra­pher, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), to record her jour­ney. Smolan is a rather ir­ri­tat­ing char­ac­ter who keeps turn­ing up at odd in­ter­vals along the way, only to find his cau­tious ro­man­tic ad­vances sen­si­bly re­buffed. A pity, per­haps. A tem­pes­tu­ous love story, how­ever phony, might have given the film some needed emo­tional clout. It’s hard to imag­ine a more sen­su­ous back­ground for ro­mance than the won­drous glory of the ev­er­last­ing stars, as Banjo Pater­son put it. There’s a lovely shot in

Tracks when the night sky is briefly su­per­im­posed on Robyn’s dream­ing fea­tures.

None of this is meant as a crit­i­cism of Wasikowska. With her air of quiet, unas­sum­ing strength (and a more than pass­ing re­sem­blance to David­son), she’s ideally cast, and makes the best of things. Those close-ups of peel­ing, sun­burnt skin look grimly con­vinc­ing, and I kept wish­ing she’d kept her hat on un­der the out­back sun. It’s also hard to be­lieve (from the ev­i­dence on screen) that she made most of her trek wear­ing noth­ing more on her feet than a pair of flimsy-look­ing san­dals.

Cur­ran and his screen­writer Mar­ion Nel­son make the most of the film’s few touches of drama — a sand­storm, a men­ac­ing charge by feral camels and (even more un­set­tling) oc­ca­sional in­va­sions by hordes of rau­cous me­dia people. I in­vari­ably mark down any out­back yarn in which a snake makes an un­ex­pected ap­pear­ance — sure enough, some sort of python slith­ers across Robyn’s sleep­ing form one night, and is seen no more (thank good­ness). I sup­pose the odd snake was en­coun­tered on her jour­ney, but it’s a wor­ry­ing sign when one of them of them tries to steal the show. I ex­ag­ger­ate, of course. The show-steal­ers here are Mr Eddy (Rolly Min­tuma), an Abo­rig­i­nal el­der who acts as Robyn’s guide and pro­vides some hu­mor­ous mo­ments and not a lit­tle wis­dom; and Robyn’s dog Diggety, who ac­com­pa­nies her for much of her jour­ney. If I dis­close what hap­pens to Diggety it might spoil the film’s emo­tional cli­max. It is suf­fi­cient to say that au­di­ences at my screen­ing seemed to care more for Diggety than they did for the flir­ta­tious Rick, or even for brave Robyn. You might do bet­ter to read the book. It’s called Tracks and has never been out of print. I should have read it my­self.

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn David­son and Adam Driver as Rick Smolan in Tracks

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