In 1977, a young Australian woman named Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) set out from Alice Springs to trek across 2,700 kilometers of harsh desert of Western Australia to reach the ocean. Accompanied only by her dog and four camels, Davidson had no other purpose than to reach the ocean and find herself on a journey of self-discovery.
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL: 'You’ve got a problem with people,’ a character remarks of Robyn Davidson, midway through this beautifully rendered drama, the account of her 1977 trek across the Australian desert from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, a distance of almost 3000 kilometres. And it’s hard to argue, given that Davidson’s stated reason for undertaking the journey cleaves less to the typical motivations of the explorer (renown, riches, a desire to be first), than to something else—equally common, I suspect, though rather more seldom articulated: an almost pathological yearning for solitude.
[...] beautifully rendered drama.
'I just want to be alone,’ she says—and the first third of the film, which charts her long months of preparation, sees her rubbing uncomfortably against various manifestations of the world she longs to leave behind: cheating bosses, suspicious townsfolk—even an surprise visit by her own best friend, who arrives from the city bringing friends of her own, a posse of unwelcome guests whose loud, incessant chatter pushes Davidson outside her own makeshift house to stare longingly at the desert beyond, so vast and silent, so indifferent.
It’s this indifference which perplexes most. Davidson seems positively nonchalant about her own fate, and by the time she’s preparing to make a six-week transit across the high desert beyond Wiluna, with no water beyond the little her four camels can carry, you have to wonder if there might not perhaps be some kind of Todestrieb at work, here, a barely-sublimated desire for extinction. Yet it’s to the credit of Marion Nelson’s script, and Mia Wasikowska’s remarkable lead performance, that her quest never feels as solipsistic as, say, that of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. Or nearly as simplistic.
Indeed, it’s more interesting to contrast this film with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which premiered here a day earlier. Both are stories of lone women in hostile environments; both find heroism in the extremes of experience. But where Cuaron’s drama feels obliged to load its drama with backstory (a dead child!), and impassioned, soliloquy-like speeches from its heroine, Curran’s protagonist—despite a voiceover which quotes from Davidson’s writings—remains mostly elusive, unknowable even to herself. Her mother hanged herself when Davidson was a child, we learn—soon after which, her pet dog was put down. Her father, she remarks vaguely, once 'wandered around’ East Africa. But these incidents are not sufficient in themselves to explain her, or why she’s chosen to light out for the territories. And while a few early reviews have expressed frustration with her opacity, in fact the answer is plain to see. Davidson might claim she’s walking to something—the West Australian coast, forever over the next rise, beyond the next burning plain—but in fact she’s walking away, retreating with every step from a world with which she feels no affinity and to which she owes no bond.
It would be remiss, however, not to acknowledge the real-life historical timing of her odyssey, which more or less coincided with the first flush of Australian feminism, and provided that cause with both a heroine and a foundation myth. (And lest anyone mistake her intent in this regard, Davidson even opened her book—also entitled Tracks—with a epigram from Doris Lessing’s women’s-liberation classic The Golden Notebook.)
An international bestseller, that book was optioned immediately; numerous attempts were made, over the past three decades, to bring it to the screen. At one stage, Julia Roberts was scheduled to star in an adaptation described by the author (who had read its script) as 'gobsmackingly awful.’ (It reportedly included a scene of Davidson being carried, naked, around a fire in a 'dreamtime initiation ceremony’—which, while certainly picturesque, never actually occurred.)
This telling, by contrast, is a model of understatement and shrewd good judgment. For much of it we’re in lockstep with the young explorer, her four camels (including tenderfoot baby 'Goliath’) and her dog, and while the trajectory of the narrative is hardly surprising, the result exerts a surprising emotional force, one that’s amplified by occasional cutaways to aerial shots of the landscape, seen from high overhead, which, more than anecdotes or incidents, make the sheer magnitude of Davidson’s achievement apparent.
On a human scale, however, much depends upon the performance of Wasikowska. She carries this film—she’s in virtually every frame—and in doing so, more than amply demonstrates why she’s currently one of the most sought-after young actors in the world. Pale and slight, she’s an astonishingly compelling screen presence, possessed of a grave sort of calm that shades, occasionally, into a joy as unforced and radiant as any seen onscreen. She’s also refreshingly un-showy; there’s no trace of self-regard in her performance, nothing ostentatious or unnecessary. Notwithstanding her fine-boned physical resemblance to the writer as a young woman, it’s nearly impossible to conceive another actress who could inhabit the role quite so well. (Though in his scenes as Mr. Eddie, the logorrheic Aboriginal Elder who guides her across sacred land, Rolley Mintuma comes awfully close to stealing the movie.)
Director John Curran is an unusually gifted filmmaker, as his superb 2004 chamber-drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore (and, to a lesser extent, 2007’s The Painted Veil) revealed. This time around, however, he’s not only working on a far larger scale than ever before, but must also juggle a number of tones. With each new incident, from a desert sandstorm to a sudden, clamorous arrival of journalists, the mood recalibrates ('Camel journeys do not begin or end," Davidson observes, 'they merely change form"), as Curran shifts confidently between the mesmerising, the lyrical and the thrilling. His framing is classical, his staging precise; every image, every composition, feels somehow indisputably right. He favours a calm, meditative pace, taking care to let individual moments play out—though credit, in this respect, should also go to his regular editor, Alexandre di Francesci, whose elegant, quietly propulsive cutting moves us swiftly through the narrative, often via a series of elegant dissolves.
Mandy Walker’s cinematography, meanwhile—inspired by the original images of National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, who visited (and irritated, and occasionally slept with) Davidson at stages along her trek—is every bit as breathtaking as the landscapes she’s depicting. Overall, the film attests to the still-unsurpassed superiority of analogue film, at least when depicting the natural world, or the epic mode.
In fact the only debit, on the technical front, is the score: Garth Stevenson’s music is mostly fine—splitting the difference, stylistically, between David Bridie and Paul Grabowsky—but far too liberally deployed. It seems bizarre that, in a film about the spaces between things—people, as well as cities—and the danger and mystery that might be found there, its soundtrack seems so determined to fill every patient minute with noise.
Streaming now at SBS On Demand
Director: John Curran
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Emma Booth, Adam Driver