Adaptation Based on a True Story

A Nomad's Film Review: Tracks

June 6, 2014Ben MK

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A walkabout to remember

By Ben Mk

When it comes to stories concerning the triumph of the human spirit, it's hard to argue against one thing — they make for compelling movies. Case in point: 12 Years a Slave, 127 Hours and Gravity, all very different films but all bound by the same universal truth — where there's a will, there's a way. It's a principle that writer Robyn Davidson wholeheartedly embraced when, in 1977, she endeavored to complete a perilous trek across 1,700 miles of scorching Australian outback. She chronicled her harrowing journey in her bestselling book, Tracks, and now director John Curran has brought her story to the big screen.

Tracks begins in 1975, with the arrival of a then-25-year-old Robyn (Mia Wasikowska) and her faithful canine companion, Diggity, in the central Australian town of Alice Springs. However, the town isn't her destination, it's her starting point. Attempting to rid herself of the self-indulgence that she's deemed to be the "malaise of her generation", Robyn is here because of her fixation on crossing the vast stretch of desert between Alice Springs and the Indian Ocean. When people ask why a young woman — possessing no survivalist skills whatsoever — would ever want to willingly undertake such a daunting and dangerous challenge, her answer is invariably, "Why not?"

But the success of Robyn's journey hinges on more than just her resolve. There are two crucial elements she's missing — money and camels — and much of the film's first act is devoted to her acquisition of both. Aside from Diggity, camels were an obvious choice of traveling companions and an integral part of her plan. Not only were they well-suited to be beasts of burden in the dry Australian heat, but the country had the largest feral population of them in the world. After spending months helping others to wrangle and train the wild beasts, she becomes the proud owner of four of them. Money, on the other hand, proves to be more of a sticking point; but she finds a solution to her financial quandary when National Geographic magazine agrees to sponsor her adventure, on the sole condition that they also send along a photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), to document it.

Drawing its inspiration from Smolan's real-life photos (some of which appear alongside the film's closing credits), Tracks is — unsurprisingly — a beautifully shot film, invoking the majestic beauty of the rugged Australian wilderness in order to fully immerse us, the viewer, in Robyn's emotions and experiences. Curran and his director of photography, Mandy Walker (who was also responsible for the lush visuals of Baz Luhrmann's down-under epic, Australia), capture the harsh terrain with the periodic aerial shot and sweeping ground-level vista, but otherwise the camera rarely ever wavers from its steadfast focus on Wasikowska. In essence, it's her performance that directs the narrative and not the other way around.

Aside from looking very much the part — sunburnt shoulders and all — Wasikowska completely vanishes behind Robyn's wavy blonde locks, and there's never a shadow of a doubt that she's striving to complete her journey with every fibre of her being. Her chemistry with Driver (who does well in an understated, yet vital role, helping Robyn to hold onto her sanity when she needs it most) adds a graceful subtext to the film, as it's through her conversations with Rick — with whom she gradually develops a friendship over the course of the story — that we learn more about Robyn and her backstory.

Yet, first-time screenwriter Marion Nelson's adaptation of Davidson's memoirs doesn't get mired in the drama. It's really all about the journey, as pure as it's intended to be. The film aptly conveys the awe-inspiring scope of the adventure through the series of vignettes that chart Robyn's progress, although there's a sense that the inherent danger isn't fully represented. Instead, the focus lies more with her quest for solitude and enlightenment. Of course, along the way she's met by both welcome and unwelcome distractions — the former being Mr. Eddie, an aboriginal elder who accompanies her for one leg of her journey, and the latter being the tourists and members of the press who dog her every step. But by the end, all of that fades away — and all that matters is her monumental achievement.

The Bottom Line

As the saying goes, it's not about the destination, it's about the journey. Tracks lives and breathes by this credo, and the result is a powerhouse film filled with breathtaking imagery that will inspire hope, awe and admiration in viewers. Mia Wasikowska's strong performance reminds us why, even going on four decades later, Robyn Davidson's story remains such a potent example of the power of the human spirit — a tale of true courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. But above all else, the film is a testament to the notion that anything is achievable, so long as the flame of passion burns brightly enough. [★★★★]

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