Tracks is a triumph

Oct 11, 2013

Robyn Davidson’s epic 1977 solo trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean is the stuff filmmakers’ dreams are made of: an incredible tale of the strength of the human spirit set against the brutal beauty of the sprawling Australian desert. At its heart, one indomitable young woman, a dog named Diggity, four camels and the photographer who captured the journey in images.

Many in the film industry have been keen to re-create the story for the big screen (Julia Roberts was once tipped for the title role), but it has taken 36 years for it to happen.

Last night’s Adelaide Film Festival opening-night premiere of Tracks – produced by Emile Sherman, directed by John Curran and named after Davidson’s book – showed it was well worth the wait.

Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) gives a stellar performance as Davidson, while stunning cinematography captures beautifully the harsh landscape against which she pitted herself, from bird’s eye views of cracked earth and sweeping sand, to point-of-view sequences of seemingly infinite, barren terrain shimmering in the merciless sun.

Tracks opens in the wild-west-like setting of 1970s Alice Springs (portrayed slightly more generously than in the book), where Davidson spent two hard years learning how to handle camels and working to acquire some herself so she could embark on the 2700km adventure.

When people ask why she wants to undertake such a seemingly impossible mission, she simply replies: “Why not?”

Adam Driver is brilliantly cast as New York photographer Rick Smolan, whose company Davidson is forced to endure at regular intervals as part of a sponsorship deal with National Geographic. The over-eager attempts by this slightly geeky “hopeless romantic” to break through the walls of the tough, self-contained Davidson provoke audience laughter in the early part of the film, as do the antics of her grunting, snorting camels: Dookie, Zeleika, Bub and baby Goliath.

Davidson eschewed people (I can deal with pigs … it’s nice people who confound me), and her yearning to be alone seems to be part of what motivated her trek, yet it was the encounters with those she met that sustained her at some of the most perilous points. These characters also provide filmgoers with a taste of the reality of outback life, and are a  contrast to the long, lonely stretches of solitary trekking. Aboriginal elder Mr Eddie (Roly Mintuma), who accompanied her through sacred Indigenous lands, is a particular treasure, while singer-actor Tim Rogers makes an appearance as outback caravan-dweller Glendle.

Tracks portrays a journey not just of the body, but also of the spirit, as the challenges she faces reveal the adventurer’s strengths and vulnerabilities, with subtle and sensitively handled flashbacks to her childhood. Wasikowska perfectly encapsulates both her character’s feistiness and fragility; one moment starring down wild camels and staunchly rebuffing offers of help, the next wandering like a sun-battered little girl lost in an arid void.

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Davidson, who attended last night’s premiere at the Festival Theatre and happily posed with camels before the screening, has applauded the Australian actress’s performance. Perhaps this story was just waiting all along for the right star and the right filmmaker.

Tracks is a triumph, and it deserved  the resounding applause it received from the opening-night audience. Make sure you see it on the big screen.

Robyn Davidson, John Curran, Emile Sherman and Rick Smolan will discuss “the journey behind the journey” at a free in-conversation event at 3pm today (Friday) at the Mercury Cinema. Tracks will screen again during the Adelaide Film Festival on October 17 at Piccadilly Cinema.

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