Tracks (2014)

TracksIn 1977 Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) left Alice Springs on a 1,700-mile journey to the Indian Ocean. Armed with a rifle and accompanied by a small animal convoy (consisting of camels Dookie, Bub, Zeleika and Baby Goliath, as well as dog Diggity), she set off into one of the most hostile and formidable environments on Earth. Sponsored by National Geographic under the proviso that she meet with a photographer at regular intervals, Robyn travels first to Ayers Rock, and then to a number of other designated rendezvous points so that her journey can be documented by Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). Along the way she has to deal with scorching days and freezing nights, in addition to feral camels, blinding sandstorms and lengthy diversions in order to avoid sacred Aboriginal land. To avoid one such detour, Robyn teams up with Eddie (Rolley Mintuma), a respected Aboriginal elder who offers to escort her a small part of the way.

“Talking is overrated”, Robyn is told, about half-way through John Curran’s film adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s popular article for National Geographic. It doesn’t just influence Robyn, who until this point has been searching for ways to express her thanks to Eddie for escorting her through one of the country’s vast sacred regions, but the filmmakers themselves. Up until now Tracks has skewed heavily towards exposition and conversation, which are perhaps overrepresented in this story of one woman’s solitary quest through some of Australia’s most isolated areas, but after which the film seems to gather faith in Davidson as a complex and compelling character in her own right. After all, if just one image can say a thousand words then imagine what a feature film might achieve.

Not that the first act isn’t interesting, or indeed necessary, because on both counts it absolutely is. Over the first hour we learn that Robyn has something of a family history, not just of walking willingly into wastelands but of struggling with feelings of loneliness and disconnection. We witness her preparing and funding her expedition, by taking jobs on camel farms to earn money and acquire animals, and by seeking sponsorship from National Geographic after a chance encounter with one of their roving photographers. We then see her begin her journey in earnest, the film skipping straight from Day One to Day Twenty-nine and her next encounter with Smolan. This main narrative is supplemented by scenes written specifically for the film, dramatising the childhood tragedy that would shape the woman Robyn was to become.

Eventually, however, the safety wheels come off and Wasikowska is required to do more than roll her eyes at naysayers and lead camels through interchangeable desert. As the sun beats down, unrelenting and inescapable, it appears to have a transformative effect, cracking her lips and burning her skin until Robyn begins to look like the desert she now inhabits. It’s not just a case of effective make-up either; something in her character seems to change too, and when she’s forced to shoot a couple of feral camels that are making a beeline for her convoy it’s clear that we are no longer dealing with someone who is lost. Wasikowska is a revelation; she’s impressed before, undoubtedly, but it is here that you for the first time gain a sense of her true potential. As she is stripped bare, not just by the sun but the very desert itself, it’s impossible not to feel for her, and feel inspired by her.

Though the central theme is one of self-discovery, and Robyn is ultimately motivated by the hope of rebirth (to be baptised by the Indian Ocean), this is no Eat, Pray, Love. Robyn hasn’t chosen to ‘find herself’ at an Indian temple or in an Italian pizzeria, but in one of the most dangerous and hostile places on Earth. “You don’t have to be unlucky to die out there”, she is reminded before setting off, and isn’t above losing her bearings or running out of water. Rather than espousing cod-philosophy and touring some of the planet’s prettiest places, Tracks has other things on its mind. Ayers Rock is briefly glimpsed, but Robyn is turned away. Aboriginal rights, modern Australian melaise and the merits of photo-journalism all come up in conversation, as do more personal questions pertaining to privacy and principles. As in real life, Robyn Davidson sees herself as having sold out, and as she earns a name for herself as ‘camel lady’ she has to deal with reporters rooting for a piece of her story.

Of course, it may seem a little strange to hear her reprimand Smolan for taking pictures of an intimate Aboriginal ceremony when we are now watching a movie attempting to replicate their way of life, but the counterargument stands that with increased attention also comes increased awareness. Although almost hideously unlikeable at the start — Smolan is portrayed as an irritant, as an inescapable part of the problem that follows her unbidden into the desert — Driver quickly justifies his photographer’s presence. If there are, as the film states, two types of nomads — one that is at home everywhere, and one that belongs nowhere — then Robin is the former and Smolan is the latter. Their relationship is an interesting one, and as Robyn begins to feel the weight of her endeavour it is explored to a much greater degree. The whole cast shines, from tutors Rainer Bock and John Flaus to Aboriginal guide Rolley Mintuma. Each makes an impression, without resorting to the charicatures that usually populate road movies.

With or without Wasikowska Tracks would have been a captivating watch, so inherently dramatic is the Australian scenery (especially as lensed by Mandy Walker). The actress, however, brings so much humanity and indomitable spirit to the film that it becomes something else entirely. Director John Curran cannot realistically hope to capture Davidson’s not only months of hardship but lifetime of turmoil in a film that is less than two hours long, but he finds a fundamental truth and honesty in her story that is incredibly humbling, occasionally heart-breaking and — for its simple pleasures as much as its existential pain — really quite haunting. I was on the verge of tears throughout, hanging on every note of Garth Stevenson’s swooning score.

5-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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