Robyn Davidson’s international bestseller about her arduous but rewarding nine-month trek through the Australian outback has been brought to the screen with impeccable craftsmanship and considerable sensitivity in “Tracks.” Anchored by a fine and flinty performance from Mia Wasikowska, director John Curran’s gorgeously rendered adventure saga succeeds not only in capturing the harshness and wild beauty of Davidson’s journey, but also in mapping a delicate interior pathway into the heart of this most atypical explorer. Prestigious fall festival berths should help court critical attention and discerning sales interest for this classy production en route to a solid arthouse destination.
Over the course of his four previous features (“Praise,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “The Painted Veil” and “Stone”), American-born, Australian-based helmer Curran has proven himself something of a specialist in the behavioral habits of prickly and unpredictable individuals. In this he makes an ideal fit for Davidson’s literary touchstone, a story of self-discovery written by someone whose actions, as presented here, were born of a desperate craving for solitude and a thorough disenchantment with so-called civilized society.
“I just want to be by myself,” says Wasikowska’s Robyn when she’s asked why she wants to walk nearly 2,000 miles from the remote northern outpost of Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, with only four hard-earned camels and her faithful dog, Diggity, for company. As set forth in Marion Nelson’s skillful adaptation, which subtly incorporates and speculates on background material not included in the book, Robyn’s battle seems to be less with nature than with other people. Friends, family members and passing observers prove less than fully supportive of her endeavor, and once she sets off into the desert in April 1977 with her four-legged friends in tow, she’s continually hounded by tourists, spectacle-seekers and reporters as word of the eccentric “camel lady” spreads throughout Australia and the world beyond.
Robyn is so opposed to outside meddling that she only grudgingly accepts the occasional company of American photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), who drives out to meet her at several points for pictures — a condition of her contract with National Geographic magazine, which has agreed to fully finance her trip. In a role significantly expanded upon from the book, Driver’s winning performance as this enthusiastic, awkwardly ingratiating tag-along emerges as one of the film’s chief pleasures. Although Rick initially exasperates with his insensitivity to local customs and his insistence on photographing everything in sight, he eventually disarms Robyn as well as the audience with his patience and persistent kindness.
One of the few other people to earn Robyn’s trust is an Aboriginal man named Mr. Eddy (a terrific Rolley Mintuma), who accompanies her for a leg of the trip, imparts plenty of regional wisdom and does his part, in the film’s funniest scene, to scare off some unwanted groupies. Moments of levity aside, Robyn’s encounters with Aboriginal men and women along the way allow “Tracks” to touch lightly on the undercurrents of racism and misogyny that were ingrained in the culture at the time, and that partly inspired Davidson’s flight into the desert to begin with.
Although the quotes and voiceover snippets from Davidson’s prose can scarcely begin to replicate the singular quality of her voice, Curran and Wasikowska do an expert job of revealing character through action, etching a full-fledged portrait of a person who did her part to defy what was expected of a young woman of her time and place. (The way Robyn treats Rick here serves as a neat inversion of the usual gender norms for this sort of relationship onscreen.) Yet Davidson’s life decisions can scarcely be reduced to a strictly feminist reading, and her ethos is perhaps best summed up by the modest self-assessment she offers here: “I’d like to think an ordinary person is capable of anything.”
The narrative is punctuated by perhaps one too many slow-motion childhood flashbacks as the film relentlessly circles some formative trauma, which will in due time account for Robyn’s stubborn withdrawal from society as well as her natural affinity for animals. But if the revelations seem a bit tidy, as revelations usually do, Wasikowsa’s characterization feels so authentically jagged and lived-in that it easily supports such explanations without in any way relying on them. A refusal to court the audience’s sympathy has been a hallmark of Wasikowska’s performances in films as distinct as “Jane Eyre” and the recent “Stoker,” and with “Tracks” she adds one more to her gallery of guarded, fiercely independent-minded heroines, somehow leading with her frown yet still managing to achieve a wrenching emotional payoff by film’s end.
Curran deploys the formal conventions of the travelogue ably enough, using maps and montages early on to chart Robyn’s pace of about 20 miles per day. The trip’s episodic progression across hundreds of miles of dry, cracked terrain imparts a necessary sense of monotony without devolving into tedium, conveying each new peril, as well as each unexpected blessing, in vivid cinematic language. From the hazards of training a temperamental camel or navigating a dusty windstorm to the pleasures of diving into a man-made oasis after weeks without bathing, Robyn’s experiences gain heft and resonance from Curran’s direction, which patiently teases out individual moments rather than rushing to get them over with.
Lensed at the beginning of the hot season in the deserts of South Australia and the Northern Territory, “Tracks” further benefits from d.p. Mandy Walker’s magnificently composed and textured widescreen images; the result is a film so persuasive in its aridity (borne out by Robyn’s increasingly disheveled appearance and sun-damaged skin) that it demands to be seen with an ice-cold beverage in hand. Dusty oranges and rusty reds dominate a palette heavily influenced by Smolan’s photographs (singled out in the credits), as well as such atmospheric classics of ’70s outback cinema as Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” and Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake in Fright.” Alexandre de Francesci’s well-judged editing and Garth Stevenson’s gently moving score round out an excellent technical package; credit camel wrangler Andrew Harper and his team for ensuring that the 19 camels used maintain the production’s high acting standards.