In 1977, 25 year-old Robyn Davidson trekked through 1700 miles of Australian desert with no traveling companions except four camels. Her reasons were personal and she had no interest in publicity or making money as part of her journey. She eventually agreed that part of the trip would be covered by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan. A year later, the article was published and generated worldwide interest. In response Davidson wrote an account of her experience that became the international best seller Tracks.
In the past thirty years there have been numerous attempts to make a film adaptation of Tracks. One version even had Julia Roberts in the Davidson role. The usual difficulties of film financing as well as the specific logistical difficulties of making a movie wholly in the desert were constant obstacles. Eventually, producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning optioned the book and have created a version that is likely to find favour with fans of Davidson’s original account.
The movie depicts a young woman who has had a tough childhood and has grown into a self-reliant adult. This movie version of Davidson is spiky, independent and on something of a half-conscious quest. We, the audience, arrive at some kind of understanding of her character through observation of her arduous trek. This is not a film of overt statement and emotional speeches. It is, in fact, a film of very few words at all. For one section of her trip, Robyn has an Aboriginal guide called Eddie (Roly Mintuma) and the duo do not share a language. They communicate through sounds and gestures. Most of her spoken communication with English speakers seems no clearer. She is a doer rather than a talker.
Davidson spoke at the 2013 Sydney Writers festival about her original journey. She is not keen on terming it as spiritual or the experience as mystic. Now as then, she wants to avoid other people labeling her or analyzing her motives. However, the interest in her and in this movie is absolutely about people’s drive towards self-discovery through testing their physical boundaries. The movie leads you to the conclusion that she traveled through a place that most people avoid, to avoid the mental and emotional turmoil of others. At the festival, Davidson spoke of being in a place where she could clear her mind
Director John Curran (PRAISE 1998) and writer Marion Nelson have done a first class job in adapting Davidson’s work to the screen. Mia Wasikowska bears some physical resemblance to the 25 year-old Davidson, but her real gift is in fully embodying a loner going through an intense internal and external experience. The lack of declarative dialogue means we mostly have to rely on reading Wasikowska’s body language and eyes to understand the Davidson character. The performance is beautifully judged so the audience is allowed insight into a fundamentally reserved character. Interestingly, if you do some reading on how others describe Davidson there is the suggestion that the screen version isn’t as outgoing and open as the woman herself.
Mandy Walker’s cinematography is stunning. As clichéd as this may sound, the desert is like another character in the film. The light, texture, heat, dust and sheer physical presence is brilliantly up there on the screen. Davisdson herself has pointed out that her journey was not in the height of summer and that the crew was sometimes dealing with greater temperature variation than she experienced. But just in case that makes it sound like Davidson’s trip was a walk in the park with camels, sometimes she was dealing with highs of 51 degrees Celsius.
The team behind this movie have brilliantly adapted their source material. They have told a powerful story in a nuanced way. The end result is an inspiring tale that I hope will connect across a broad audience.
TRACKS opens in Australian cinemas today. It runs for 112 minutes. I rated it 8/10.