By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 29, 2013 at 7:16AM
“Tracks” has been a long time coming. Ever since Robyn Davidson wrote her 1979 memoir of her 1700-mile, eight-month trek across the Australian outback from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, and the book became an award-winning best-seller around the world, Hollywood has been sniffing around it. Multiple attempts to mount an adaptation have been made—Julia Roberts was attached to a version for much of the 1990s—but it finally took the producers of “The King’s Speech” and the oft-undervalued New York-born, Australian-based director John Curran (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “The Painted Veil”) to get it made, with the film finally premiering at the Venice Film Festival today. And for many, it’ll have been worth the wait: it’s a very handsome film with a terrific central performance, even if it’s not quite an unqualified triumph.
Mia Wasikowska takes the lead role of Davidson, who, haunted by tragedy and far from comfortable around civilization, heads to Alice Springs (more or less the center of Australia) in order to acquire the three camels she’ll need to carry her supplies on an epic trek through the desert to the West Coast. After a few false starts, she ends up with four of the beasts—Dookie, Bub, Zelly and baby Goliath—and with faithful dog Diggity, heads out into the wilderness. The only concession she’s forced to make is agreeing to have a National Geographic photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver of “Girls” fame), meet her once a month or so to help document her journey.
And as you might expect, that’s about it, plot wise. By nature, it’s an episodic film, with memorable incidents—an attack by wild camels, a tragic poisoning, an amusing encounter with another cross-country traveller—but not much in the way of a throughline, beyond the occasional flashbacks into Davidson’s backstory, and her sometimes romantic, sometimes prickly relationship with Rick. Curran and first-time writer Marion Nelson do a fair job at mixing things up (a late injection of humor courtesy of Aboriginal guide Mr. Eddy, played by bona-fide Elder Rolley Minutma, works especially well), but the arguably generous runtime just short of two hours inevitably means that the film can sometimes feel like a slog, even if it’s hard to imagine an adaptation where that wouldn’t be the case.
Still, most will find it’s a journey worth taking, and that’s thanks in a big way to Wasikowska (though Driver’s beguilingly charming presence is welcome every time he appears as well). The actress continues to go from strength to strength, and Davidson is right in her wheelhouse. It’s hard to imagine another actress as well-suited to the awkward, faintly asexual figure who dominates the film, and even aside from an easy rapport with the animals, Wasikowska seems to virtually blend into the landscape like she was born there (indeed, the actress was born in Canberra).
And what landscape it is. Not since Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” has the fearsomely beautiful variety of the nation’s barren countryside been so well showcased, thanks to sterling photography from Mandy Walker (who manages to top her already-impressive work on Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia”), her work proving clean, crisp and very beautiful indeed—shots of Wasikowska and her camel train crossing blinding white sands, or of their shadows on cracked earth are among the year’s most impressive. The score, by first-time feature composer Garth Stevenson, is equally lovely, making the film a pleasure for the ears as well as the eyes.
That said, the film never quite lingers as anything beyond an extremely well-made travelogue—a version of the kind of TV series that former Monty Python Michael Palin has become known for in recent years. While Nelson’s script (which is also guilty of some clumsy foreshadowing in places) attempts to ground Davidson’s journey in past tragedy, she mostly remains an enigma, and a slightly muddled flashback motif gives the impression that the whole expedition has essentially been driven by the death of her own Old Yeller. It’s a beautiful experience, for sure, but you don’t come away feeling much more enlightened about the soul of either the film’s subject or its setting.
Still, Curran again demonstrates why he’s something of an unsung talent, with truly accomplished and impressive filmmaking, and on top of her turn in “Stoker” earlier in the year, Wasikowska reminds us all that she’s in possession of one of the most individual screen presences of her generation. The film’s undoubtedly a gorgeous look at the Australian outback, but those looking for deeper nourishment will be left a touch disappointed. [B]
Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 Venice Film Festival to date by clicking here. New image up top via the LA Times.