David Stratton and Evan Williams give their verdicts
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