As I mentioned recently in a review of Wild, at present we’re not exactly short of films about long, arduous solo journeys across unforgiving terrain, ostensibly undertaken with the aim of ‘finding oneself’. There’s a reason for that: they tend to be very interesting stories, and invariably detail extremities of human strength and determination as well as any other kind of drama. This steady, well-acted 2013 Australian contribution to the sub-genre tells the story of Robyn Davidson, who in 1977 trekked 1,700 miles across some of the country’s deserts from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, accompanied for the most part by a dog named Diggity and four camels. Davidson, played here by a committed Mia Wasikowska, sought funding for the journey from National Geographic, and for several months the magazine regularly dispatched photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver, who grows into the part) to document her long walk; his photos illustrated Davidson’s subsequent article for National Geographic, which proved to be so popular it was elongated and published as the best-seller Tracks.
John Curran’s dramatisation of Tracks and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild have several things in common; aside from the obvious links (both stories are adapted from memoirs, both are about lone female trekkers, both end with photo montages of the real-life writer during their journey) the two films also incorporate flashbacks that explore the reasons behind their protagonists’ respective decisions to walk such great distances. Curran, who wrote The Killer Inside Me and directed box office flop Stone, builds these in far less flamboyantly than Vallée, but interestingly both films arrive at similar conclusions: that motivation comes from the death of a mother and, perhaps to a lesser degree, from a father’s rejection. (Davidson’s father (played by Robert Coleby here) was an explorer himself, and the film’s suggestion at least – I haven’t read the book – is that Robyn is apparently driven to equal or better his achievements.)
Wasikowska’s Robyn is independent, tough and resourceful, presumably an accurate reflection of the real person. Her lack of fear is established in the film’s opening scene, in which a man passing by on a jeep points a gun at her, and she barely rises to this sick, provocative joke. This mental toughness is further explored as the film summarises Robyn’s next two years; she works for two camel wranglers, one honest and one untrustworthy, learning how to handle the animals as she goes along. Eventually, sufficiently prepared and with the necessary funding secured, she is able to set off from central Australia on the long walk to the west coast. The remainder of the film addresses the many difficulties of that journey and details her very occasional meetings with a few of the people living in this scorched, barren part of the world. Rick drops by from time to time, initially causing problems by photographing Aboriginal Australians against their wishes and forcing Robyn to pose on her camels, something she is uncomfortable with. The relationship between photographer and walker softens over time, though, and when Robyn briefly falters near the end Smolan is there to provide support.
The bond that develops between these two (or indeed the bond that develops between Robyn and temporary guide Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) as she passes through sacred Aboriginal sites) is very much a secondary concern, and commendably Curran keeps his focus on Robyn’s incredible journey; a brief fling, for example, leads nowhere, and the main relationship in the film is actually the one that exists between Robyn and Diggity, her black labrador. The emphasis on the walk is one of the notable differences between Tracks and Wild; while watching the latter I found it frustrating when Vallée left Cheryl Strayed’s journey in order to repeatedly concentrate on her past, as I think it happens too often in that film, although it’s understandable; Strayed has the kind of salacious background that gets writers and directors all hot under the collar, for one thing.
The landscape seen in Tracks is largely desolate and flat, as in Tulpan, and the horizon is unbroken for miles, while places to hide from the sun are few and far between. Davidson’s achievement beggars belief when contemplating the extreme heat she faced every day, not to mention the many other natural hazards faced or the distance covered. Obviously water was scarce and food was also hard to come by, ensuring that management of the camels was paramount to survival. The panic Robyn experiences in the film when they suddenly disappear, or when an wild, angry bull camel is heading for the party, is not without good reason.
Wasikowska has built up an impressive filmography considering the fact she’s still in her mid-20s. This is one of her best roles to date, and she tackles it with the requisite confidence, grit and determination, showing no signs of fear around the camels, some of which look pretty ferocious indeed. As such Davidson gets the performance she deserves, and thanks to Marion Nelson’s deft screenplay, the adaptation she deserves. Unfortunately Tracks failed to set the box office alight, which presumably will make things difficult for John Curran in the future; if that turns out to be the case it’ll be a shame, as on this showing he is a talented director. His quiet, meditative film captures the stillness of the Outback well.
Directed by: John Curran
Written by: Marion Nelson, Robyn Davidson
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver
Running Time: 112 minutes