Tracks Movie Review

Featuring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver
Director: John Curran
Writers: Marion Nelson
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thursday 6 March, 2014

Reviewers’ verdicts:
rolanstein: Magnificently shot, superbly performed, breathing with the timeless spirit of the desert outback – this is epic cinema at its best.
Karen: Disappointing, but worth seeing.

With her dog and four camels, solitary young misfit Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) sets off on a trek from Alice Springs through the wilderness of the central deserts to the Indian Ocean. Part-funded by National Geographic magazine, she is obligated to meet up with New York photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) at various checkpoints along the way for photo sessions. She views his presence as compromising her ideal of the solo journey, but as the trek starts to wear her down physically and mentally, their professional relationship becomes personal. Although she derives sustenance from his support and her interactions with indigenous desert peoples, her journey is hers alone, pushing her to almost unendurable limits. Based on ‘Camel Lady’ Robyn Davidson’s written account of her 2700km sand-to-sea trans-Australia trek in the mid-70s.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
The movie opens with an extraordinary shot: a woman seemingly walking upside down until her shadow comes into view and restores the perspective. This creative, captivating camerawork has a poetic quality about it; that is, it works both aesthetically and as a carrier of meaning beyond the literal. And it’s a sign of things to come – cinematographically, Tracks is magnificent.

There is nothing smart-arse about the virtuosity on display here, either. At all times, the camera is in the service of the work. Perfectly, thrillingly so. If there is a film that better captures the beauty and terror of the desert outback – indeed evokes its very spirit – I haven’t seen it. It’s rare that a sense of place is so intensely rendered in art that you feel somehow intimately acquainted with a physical environment, infused into it, regardless of whether you’ve actually been there. If you’ve read Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round In The Sea, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

There is a risk of journey movies tipping over into travelogue, of over-milking environmental spectacle such that background becomes foreground, swamping the narrative and the human drama that powers it. That never happens here due to the unwaveringly disciplined and focused direction, and the performance of Mia Wasikowska.

Mia is a magnetic presence, her character an intriguing combination of frailty and strength, vulnerability and resilience, independence and need. These disparate elements co-exist in fine balance. Who knows how closely she resembles her real-life prototype? It doesn’t matter. She’s more than believable; she seems real.

And that’s what makes the film so moving. We’re with her all the way (or am I speaking as a misfit myself, who readily identifies with another?). Wasikowska doesn’t play Davidson as a hero or crazy. Rather, she is depicted as uncomfortable in the human world she leaves behind, and haunted by demons of the past, and her extended solitary sojourn seems almost reasonable as a response, rather than some desperate, eccentric grand escape or misguided spiritual pilgrimage into a great and lethally inhospitable unknown.

When her initially reluctant relationship with photographer Rick turns intimate in a time of loneliness and need, it’s entirely credible – as is her subsequently pushing him away and insisting on reclaiming her solitary journey as her own. Her closeness to her animals is endearing (as is her loyal and adorable dog, Diggety). And we feel what she feels for the Aboriginal desert-dwellers who take her into their midst.

These people are spiritually connected to their surrounds; they are profoundly at home in the desert. Robyn is in quest of their sense of belonging. She respects them for having what she’s yearning for. And the women respond by taking her in as a sister, sharing a little of their culture with her. Further, a male elder joins her on her trek for several days, guiding her through sacred country forbidden to women not in the company of a man. He’s a funny and gentle old guy, speaking constantly to her in language, and with nary a common word between them, bit by bit they transcend the communication gap. Their interaction is beautifully handled, and packs an unanticipated emotional wallop in its quiet expression of cultural reconciliation.

An encounter with an elderly white couple living in utter isolation in their homestead on a vast cattle station is warming, too. These good-hearted laconic folk of few words are the stuff of fading outback mythology, restoring the flagging spirits of the Camel Lady by feeding and bathing her, and giving her a bed for the night before she takes up her cross – well, camels – and staggers on into the wilderness.

There, less positive human encounters await, along with a soul-destroying loss that briefly opens the door on a terrible episode from her childhood – a neat and well-managed characterisation device. And speaking of character, there is no attempt at unlocking the enigmatic Robyn Davidson. Flashbacks to her past hint at some answers, but wisely, the filmmakers have chosen to allow Wasinowska to develop her character from the clay of the narrative itself, rather than chucking in chronologically scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle for the viewer to solve. While the past inevitably intrudes from time to time, the focus is the journey. And destination provides an end point, but not a resolution of character, and that is as it should be in a piece like this.

I have two tiny gripes. While Mia Wasikowska’s wonderful talent is given full reign in her role as Robyn Davidson, her accent is Australian-contemporary with perhaps a touch of American in the mix. A voice coach of appropriate vintage could have tutored her in achieving a 70s delivery. Secondly, as is almost always the case with movies set earlier than the 80s, some of the vernacular is not true to the era. eg: The use of the sarcastic mode of “Yeah, right.” Wanted: baby boomer language-sensitive pedants to vet retro scripts and weed out inauthentic vernacular. I’d be first to shoot up my expert vernacular-nazi hand, so directors/editors take note.

I’m going to stick my neck out and declare this a major Australian work: lyrical, dramatic, rousing, masterfully shot and performed. And it is essentially cinematic, superbly told in the language of film against the most stunningly beautiful and otherworldly of environmental backdrops. I can’t recall a more seamless film adaptation of a written work.

Whether you’re a casual film-goer or a fanatic, Tracks is an absolute must-see. Don’t wait for the video. This deserves to be experienced as intended, on the big screen.

Review 2: (Karen)
You would be forgiven for thinking, while watching Tracks, that central Australia only experiences dawn and late afternoon, so luscious and yellow is the light in the early sequences. The outback has never looked so lovely, but while it’s a treat to look at, it is thematically problematic. Is it meant to suggest that that is how the “camel lady” Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) viewed the country she was determined to trek through? If so, it’s at odds with how she is otherwise portrayed: as practical, realistic, tough and difficult, among a variety of other traits. She would have known the dangers, would have known that the morning light is just the pup to the midday beast.

Wasikowska bears more than a passing resemblance to Robyn Davidson, as photographs at the end credits show, and the wardrobe is accurate too. I haven’t read the book from which the screenplay is taken, but these details suggest that the film is faithful to it. Perhaps Davidson actually makes some remark about her perception of the desert, but the romantic cinematography (by director of photography Mandy Walker) sits uneasily with realistic sequences of her slogging at the camel farm where she learns her skills, in filthy clothes, and sleeps in a swag on the dirt.

But as I said, it’s lovely to watch, and I wanted to love the film, but it didn’t really move me. I’m bothered about that, because it had all the elements for a moving, even an epic film, but it felt – and I apologise for the pun – pedestrian.

The inland/inward journey is big in Australian literature and history – think Voss, and Lasseter, and Burke and Wills – and there’s no pussyfooting around the fact that Davidson was dealing with deep-seated personal issues when she planned her long trek from Central Australia across desert country to the west coast. Handily, she takes her black labrador Diggity with her, and in case we haven’t made the connection, a child’s letter to the camel lady and her “black dog” is shown.

The reasons for her depression, as well as her motivation for the journey, are gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks – presented as nightmare memories that wake her at night, suggesting that her confronting them is an involuntary process – that go a way towards explaining her sadness and desire to be alone. But these episodes, which intersperse the narrative of her planning, training and journeying, instead of adding layers of understanding, seem to interrupt the emotional buildup, so that both stories lose depth and power. For me anyway; there were certainly sounds of sniffles from the audience at logical points.

I generally like Mia Wasikowska, but found her portrayal of an essentially unlikable character somewhat mannered. And I was horrified to hear some American twang in her accent. That aside, it’s undoubtedly hard to make an audience sympathise with a character who gives away so little, and who is often ungracious. There was, however, a beautifully written and acted scene where Davidson accepts the hospitality of an old couple, homesteaders who give her a meal and a bath; here at last she is comfortable in her own skin and in their company, in the silence and the spare but meaningful conversation.

Photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), who met up with Davidson at intervals and documented her trek for National Geographic magazine, is comic relief (and for Davidson, a bit more than that) and epitomises, with his endless yapping, part of what she is fleeing; but the performance is nuanced as he falls for her and makes important and lifesaving efforts to support her. Another yapper is Mr Eddie (Roly Mintuma), who acts as her Indigenous custodian through some of the route; Davidson seems to tolerate him better, perhaps because he is funny and full of useful knowledge, and perhaps because she doesn’t understand his language.

Finally I have to mention the camels. This film will do little to change their reputation as stinking, spitting, braying beasts, although it’s made graphically clear that castrating the males is pretty much a sine qua non of peaceful camel ownership. I felt a bit sad, though. Those who follow this blog will know that I have been away in the Middle East, and I had a brief but wonderful acquaintance with camels in a two-hour trek across the Jordanian desert, and a chance encounter the following day with hobbled, grazing camels. The hobbles were soft fabric rags, not the leather and iron chains of decades-ago Australia; and the Bedouins spoke of how they valued their camels. This was in contrast to the camel stewardship shown in Tracks, which perhaps contributes to Australian camels’ bad behaviour and poor image, and which Davidson herself diverged from.

And then there’s the desert, which despite the beautiful cinematography, and the crises it and its inhabitants (snakes, wild camels, rampant tourists and international paparazzi) throw up, fails to quite become the objective correlative for the therapy Davidson seeks. I was left wondering if she found resolution, or peace, or redemption, and the final scenes, while beautiful, didn’t answer my question. I guess I’ll have to read the book.

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3 thoughts on “Tracks Movie Review”

  1. I wish I could have written your review! I really wanted to love this film, and further, to be massively impressed by it. And I did love some bits – for example, the hand movement that young Robyn makes as she is walking to the car to go and live with her aunt. The gesture is perfect, conveying distress that verges on anger; it’s easy to see how that emotion gets turned inward.

    But the flashbacks didn’t work for me: I felt they really were “chronologically scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle”.

    I didn’t like the voice over that started the whole thing, either. It added nothing that we didn’t find out or deduce from the action, and the delivery was flat.

    But! I now want to read the book, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the film again. Go figure. So I stick by my opinion: this is really worth seeing.

  2. So, we’re a long way apart on this one, Karen. I doubt we’re going to get anywhere with a to-and-fro in this Comments thread, but I’ve just got to say a few things.

    The point you make in your opening para I can’t relate to at all. Sure, she’d know that the beauty of the desert at dawn and dusk were bookends to a ferociously harsh day, but she hasn’t yet begun on her journey.

    Yes, she’s “practical, realistic, tough and difficult”, as you say, but she’s a complex character, and I thought Mia gave her a sort of contrasting naivete that exists in plausible paradox to those qualities you identify. There is a romantic in there behind the armour. Indeed, the trek is a romantic ideal to her at this stage; she sees it as something to place faith in, that will take her far out of the human world she struggles to relate to, that may lead to some sort of revelation that will bring her some peace. It’s a spiritual quest as much as a physical challenge, so it seems to me that at this time the site of this quest would glow with promise and beauty, and that the early shots of the desert speak to this. The rough camping conditions under which she lives prior to setting out on the trek hint at the realities that await, but at this stage are way secondary to the grand vision of the trek. Thus, I found the choice of desert shots perfectly fitting (not to mention visually arresting). In other words, poetic, and beautifully so, like the cinematography throughout.

    I reeled back at your describing the film as “pedestrian”. I honestly cannot think of a less appropriate adjective! I wonder what you mean? I can’t work it out from your review. Perhaps you could elaborate here.

    It seems to me you gave the flashbacks more weight than I did. For me, they emerged naturally in the course of the trek, and did not in any way detract from the emotional power of the trek narrative. In fact, I thought they complemented and fuelled it (a prime example being the dog memory that is triggered by a gutting event during her trek – which means so much more after the flashback and gives some vital insight into the Robyn character). For the most part, though, while the flashbacks were a characterisation device, I don’t think they represented any sort of attempt to give a composite picture of any depth or clarity of the younger Robyn. That’s why I reject the notion that they were “chronologically scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle”. A jigsaw puzzle is a composite picture. In this instance, I don’t think there was any agenda to create a coherent whole from the flashback parts.

    A related point of difference between us is that I was not “left wondering if she found resolution, or peace, or redemption”. One of the aspects of the film I particularly liked was that there was no compulsion to provide these sorts of answers. This was a small “s” spiritual journey, and all the better for it IMO. I didn’t want to be fed any more than the character and narrative provided.

    I don’t get your point about the camels. We’re talking 70s Australia. I have no doubt the camels were hobbled and treated as shown. Robyn took a different approach, thankfully, and that added to her appeal as a character. Camel welfare and the way it is handled today in other parts of the world is surely irrelevant? But I guess you were just making an extra-review comment because your Middle-East experience is fresh in mind.

    Something we do share: I also want to read the book now, although not to fill in gaps left by the film. I’m just curious about Robyn Davidson. The film prompted me to do a bit of quick research (ie: read Wikipedia), and she sounds pretty damned interesting. And quite different in some ways from the character as presented in the film. eg: She was a member of the Sydney Push. I didn’t see a bohemian in the film character. Doesn’t matter at all to me, since I thought the character worked fine, but the contrast with the real-life Davidson is something that whets my appetite to investigate the source material.

    And like you, I wouldn’t mind seeing the film again. Who knows – we might swap positions on a second viewing!


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