Tracks

March 8, 2014
Mia Wasikowska in 'Tracks', 2013
Mia Wasikowska in 'Tracks', 2013

In April 1977 the 26 year-old Robyn Davidson set out with a dog and four camels to walk 2,700 kilometres from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Tracks, her memoir of the journey, was published in 1980 and became a world-wide best-seller. The film rights for the book were first sold in the early 1980s but it has taken more than 30 years to bring Tracks to the screen. On the way there have been no fewer than five false starts – a trail of broken promises and disappointments.

It was Emile Sherman and Iain Canning, the producers of The King’s Speech, that finally got the movie up and running. New Yorker, John Curran, was hired as director, while in Mia Wasikowska they found the perfect actress to play the young Davidson.

The journey took nine months, but occuppies little more than half of the book. The rest of Davidson’s account centres on the harshness of everyday life in Central Australia – from the crude machismo of Alice Springs to the degrading treatment of the Aboriginals. It was no place for a girl from Queensland filled with naive ideas about social justice. Her first-hand account of this world must have been an eye-opener for overseas readers, if not for city-dwelling Australians.

34 years later, despite the revolution of the Aboriginal arts industry, one wonders how much has changed. Alice Springs is a more sophisticated place but indigenous people are still second-class citizens. What should we make of the fact that the new icon of the outback is Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor – a sadistic serial killer who gets his kicks slicing up foreign backpackers?

One might also cite John Pilger’s portrait of Central Australia in his documentary, Utopia. In his typically heavy-handed way, Pilger paints a devastating portrait of the inequalities that exist between black and white Australians. There is no denying the miseries of life in the Aboriginal settlements but this doom-laden approach is only part of the story.

Tracks is a very different proposition. The book was not simply the account of an arduous journey, it detailed a spiritual quest by a young woman baffled about her own motivations. It is a perfectly linear narrative that begins with Davidson’s arrival in Alice Springs, and ends with a plunge into the ocean. Although there are awesome shots of the desert, the story is an interiorised one. There is not much of a plot. Aside from Davidson and the American photographer, Rick Smolan (convincingly portrayed by Adam Driver), the most memorable characters are the camels.

The viewer is naturally moved to ask: “Why did she do it?” In the book, Davidson is elusive on this point. She claims to have been bored and dissatisfied with her life. “I had made the choice instinctively,” she wrote, “and only later had given it meaning.”

John Curran is not satisfied with this, and provides a clumsy psychological explanation in Davidson’s flashback memories of her mother’s suicide. This is less convincing than the author’s reluctance to analyse her own motivations. The journey, if it is to have meaning, is a venture into the unknown. When Davidson ventures out into that void, accompanied only by her animals, she cannot say what she hopes to discover or what she might be fleeing.

Unlike those intrepid female travellers such as Gertrude Bell or Freya Stark, Davidson never kept a journal or wrote notes. But when she sat down to write up her account in London, she realised the trip had made her into a writer. She had found a subject, or at least the capacity for introspection.

This is very difficult to convey in a film, but Tracks never gets bogged down in detail. There is a sense of inexorability as Davidson trudges ever deeper into the desert, her progress interrupted only by the occasional intrusions of Rick, with his camera, and encounters with the local Aborigines. The tribal elder, Mr. Eddie (Roly Mintuma) who leads her through the desert, is probably the most talkative character on the entire movie, albeit in dialect.

The desert people in Tracks are depicted as straightforward, humorous and good-hearted – a world away from the tragic figures of Pilger’s documentary. The grotesques are the tourists who scrabble to take Davidson’s photo, and the paparazzi who descend as she nears the end of the trip. We follow the waves of her moods, which veer from despairing to ecstatic.

Tracks is an immersive experience in which draws us into the consciousness of one stubborn, conflicted young woman. A lesser actress might have been tempted to squeeze a bit more drama from the lead role, but Wasikowska plays the part with great delicacy. One of the reasons the book has exerted such an undying appeal on its readers is that it is a fable of female empowerment – a journey into a pure land, free from the evils and ugliness of society. The strength of the film is that it gives us a glimpse of this Nirvana, without ever having to spell it out.

Tracks
Australia, rated M
113 mins
Directed by John Curran; based on the book by Robyn Davidson; starring Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Roly Mintuma

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8 March, 2014.