After Alfonso Cuarón presented Sandra Bullock as an astronaut trying to navigate her way through space in Gravity at the Venice Film Festival, the following day we were treated to Mia Wasikowska's journey with her dog and four camels from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in John Curran's Tracks, based on the real-life personal and physical nine-month adventure of Robyn Davidson in 1977. The film, which draws on the original article in National Geographic (who financed her journey) and on Davidson's subsequent bestseller, has taken a long while to make it to the big screen. But it was well worth the wait.
I hadn’t made a film in Australia since I was 17, so I felt like I was reconnecting with my own roots
The following day I spoke to John Jarratt, who was promoting Wolf Creek 2, a kind of grisly desert antidote to Tracks. He explained how at one point his former wife Noni Hazlehurst was to play Davidson, possibly alongside himself as Rick Smolan, the photographer whose stunning visuals became the basis for the look of Curran's film. Then, in the '90s, Disney had planned to make the film with Julia Roberts.
Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning started planning the film three years ago after Disney's option ran out. They are clearly hoping it might follow in the tracks of their Oscar-winner The King's Speech, even if they won't admit it. “I'm not going to comment on that; it's up to you to decide,” Sherman chuckled in Venice. Harvey Weinstein, who picked up the film for American distribution, will surely be getting behind it.
Venice critics were in awe as Australian audiences will be when they watch this mesmerising trek into the wilderness, which has been widely compared to Sean Penn's Into the Wild.
Jean-François Pluijgers, Le Vif weekly magazine, Belgium
“I want my teenage daughter to see the movie because I think she could relate to the journey and it could give her some inspiration. She might realise that life is not all about spending all her days on her iPod.”
Salvatore Llopart, La Vanguardia daily newspaper, Barcelona
“Mia Wasikowska embodies Robyn Davidson's single-mindedness and gives audiences the sense that anything is possible. Watching the movie makes me want to go to Australia. It's the best film with camels since Lawrence of Arabia. I've never seen camels portrayed with such dignity and aristocracy.”
Jon Selas, Verdans Gang, daily newspaper, Norway
“Appealing storytelling and well balanced. Never loses track.”
Wearing a cute geometric–patterned dress, Mia Wasikowska seemed younger than her 23 years during her press rounds in Venice, while the real-life buxom and ballsy Robyn Davidson, now 64, proved herself a force to be reckoned with. As with so many of her roles though, the seemingly fragile Wasikowska transforms with her steely portrayal as Davidson.
“Mia was the obvious choice,” notes Davidson. “I'd seen her in In Treatment initially and she has a quality that's very difficult to describe and I thought it was exactly right for the role. She had a kind of depth or intelligence that to me was very appealing. Then when we met for the first time, I was to go with her out into the desert to show her something about camels and here was this delicate person. I thought, 'Gosh, how is she going to muster up the strength that the role requires?' Yet she met the camels and very fearlessly got straight into it, so that was fine. The next time I saw her she had transmogrified into a sort of version of me. I'm so delighted she accepted the role and I couldn't think of a better actor to do it.”
Canberra-born Wasikowka had vaguely been attached to the film for two years. “From the first moment I read the story I fell completely in love with Robyn's character,” she recalls. “I felt a very deep understanding of who she was, but in a way that I couldn't necessarily articulate. Reading the book deepened this feeling and I became terrified of being Robyn. But we had the most wonderful days in the middle of Australia spending time with the camels and drinking from the billy.
“What was really nice about this story was there was this young woman who brings her life back to the basics of survival, which is putting one foot in front of the other and attending to what you need. It really simplifies things.”
The experience of coming back to make a film in Australia became a defining moment for the actress, who had won the Young Actor's AFI Award for 2006's Surburban Mayhem.
“I hadn't made a film in Australia since I was 17, so I felt like I was reconnecting with my own roots and reconnecting with the Australian industry,” Wasikowska says. “Only a couple of months after the film I decided to definitely stay in Australia and live there, so it was really important for me on a personal level as well, because my film world and home world had always been separate.”
How her return will work with her relationship with current beau, 29-year-old New Yorker Jesse Eisenberg (who also was in Venice promoting Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves), remains to be seen. Next up, the couple will head for Toronto to promote Richard Ayoade's The Double, the comedy where they met in which Eisenberg plays a character tormented by the appearance of a doppelgänger. He says it's his best role yet, as he gets to portray two opposing personality types, even if they are both intense, as always.
In Venice, though, Davidson was the great revelation. It's no surprise that Bruce Chatwin had been inspired to write his own 1986 bestseller, The Songlines, after meeting the feisty Australian. Chatwin, in turn, introduced Davidson to Salman Rushdie, with whom she had an affair. She continued a career of travelling and writing about her travels for over 30 years.
How does Davidson look back on her original experience in the desert? “An experience like that is bound to be transformative and it certainly was for me in all sorts of ways,” she replies. “During that period of solitude and being in that astonishing landscape, I think I came together as a person on one level, but on another level I entered into that landscape in a way that's very difficult to describe. You go through certain mind changes, you change your consciousness. As to how much of that I've preserved, I don't know. It's very difficult to keep hold of it when we live in very distracting modern times for sure. But I'm deeply glad that I had it.”
She admits that her trip was very much a part of the era.
“At the time, all young people pretty much wanted to do extraordinary things and extend the limits of what had been given to them as their roles,” she says, referring largely to what was expected of women in those times. “So I think in that sense the trip caught the zeitgeist, but it also had other elements that make it relevant today.”
Could young women do it now? “One could do it but it would have a completely different meaning. When I did it there was no GPS and I didn't have the sense that there were satellites flying above me locating where I was. I also didn't do it in order to create a spectacle. I didn't think anybody would be interested. I did it for very personal reasons and I think that kind of motivation changes culturally over time. Today, a young woman would assume she could do whatever she wanted, so I think I was a product of my time. Notoriety wasn't of any interest to me and indeed I was resentful that I had to kind of sell out to National Geographic in order for the trip to go ahead.”
Streaming now at SBS On Demand
Director: John Curran
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Emma Booth, Adam Driver