Loner Robyn Davidson (Wasikowska) takes it upon herself to cross the Outback with four camels. A quixotic journey that comes to the attention of an irksome National Geographic photograper (Driver).
Once meant for Julia Roberts, this terrific Australian travelogue instead gifts Mia Wasikowska the chance to break away from sullen teenagers and give a moving, womanly, detailed portrayal of a complex soul. Based on her bestselling memoir, this is the true story of Robyn Davidson, not what you’d call a people person, who decided to cross 1,700 miles of Australian Outback with four camels and her devoted black labrador, Diggity. In 1977, an unthinkable journey for a lone young woman.
Davidson’s motivation is obscure even to her. We are not talking about anything as trite as finding herself, more the opposite. Craving isolation, she wants to disappear into the vastness of the desert. Her encounters with genial but bemused Aborigines give her expedition a spiritual aura, and the film falls in with Nicholas Roeg’s trippy classic Walkabout and, in a sense, Peter Weir’s dreamy evocation of primal nature, Picnic At Hanging Rock.
Although Tracks has a harder nose. Davidson’s quest could be a matter of therapy (she dwells on her mother’s death). Or a gesture of feminist empowerment (she reacts to male assistance like a bee sting). Or it could be born out of sheer bloodymindedness. Wasikowska, thriving in the blanketing sun and evoking Davidson’s inward strangeness via voice-over, captures all the barbs, edges and graces of a character exhausted by human company but at one with animal kind.
Naturally, she will be beset by an old-school Disney quotient of mislaid camels, lost paths, storms whipped up out of nothing and water shortages, but finds herself harassed most of all by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (the excellently oddball Adam Driver), who serves as mission control, erstwhile lover, saviour and nemesis all wrapped up in one lanky, obnoxious and (worst of all) American body.
While never straying from the linear framework of the book, director John Curran gives his all to the possibilities of the landscape, allowing it to transform scene to scene from rapture to nightmare, making ample room for a full mix of trial-by-nature, odd-couple comedy, personal epiphany, and a light-hearted exposé of camel management.
However familiar the terrain, this is a vivid, heartbreaking and captivating character piece and travel movie in one, guided by an outstanding Wasikowska.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan