Tuesday 22 April 2014

Backroads: "Tracks"

In 1977, Robyn Davidson - the blonde-haired, fair-skinned daughter of explorer parents - embarked upon a six-month, 1700-mile trek across the Australian outback, heading from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, via what was then known as Ayres Rock. The general reaction was that the girl was crazy; that such a thin slip of a thing would only shrivel - if not perish - beneath the relentless sun. Yet for Davidson, this trek would be a means not just to proving her (mostly male) naysayers wrong, but of striking a blow against a more general chauvinism that insisted women could only perform certain tasks, usually on their knees. (If you think the world was a chauvinist place back in '75, imagine what a macho culture like Australia's, in particular, would have been like to live in.) John Curran's big-screen retelling of this story, Tracks, takes a while before getting anywhere: never before will you have experienced a movie so attentively and painstakingly devoted to the finer points of camel-training. 

Once its Robyn sets out with her animal entourage, however, the film boils down to its essentials: one girl and/against the desert, much as, say, Gravity was one woman and/against outer space. The girl in question is the perpetually curious and increasingly vital Mia Wasikowska, Burton's Alice, less ethereal than she's yet appeared on screen, earthy in everything from her hirsute underarms to her silica-roughened feet, and suggesting first a desire for disconnection - she shrugs off the sporadic appearances of the garrulous National Geographic photographer (Adam Driver) who's been assigned to document her progress - and then an urgent need to reconnect. There's a sense that Robyn - a bright if still somewhat naive girl, alert to her own position in history, if not always so certain about her position on the map - was taking the backroutes to get at her homeland's hidden past: isolated Aboriginal communities, women determined to go their own way, stampeding camels, no less determined to assert their own independence. (Told you there were a lot of camels.)

Jane Campion might have made something extraordinary with this story; in the hands of the generally capable journeyman Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) Davidson's venture is given a conventional, if broadly satisfying, treatment. Each episode the heroine arrives at does no more than stretch this small, straight story - a girl, her dog and some camels, and later not even the dog - a little further across a wide canvas. Curran has a thousand and one tricks at his disposal to conjure the desert ambience - shots of sheets flapping in the breeze, red dogs appearing on baking sands - and has a major ally in Garth Stevenson's endlessly evocative score. Yet most of the film's images - dotted with solar flares, underlined with heat haze - are the predictable ones, and they rarely distract us from the sensation of a narrative dutifully trekking from A to B: it's more Incredible Journey than Walkabout, following in Robyn's footsteps, rather than matching her in breaking new ground. It works whenever it invites us to pull up a seat around the campfire, and lend our ears to a story that is competently if stolidly set out - and so warming is the glow coming off the screen that you could probably get a tan just from sitting there.

Tracks opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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