In 1975, 25-year-old Robyn Davidson arrived in Alice Springs with a few dollars, a suitcase, her dog Diggity and a plan to trek from the central Australian city to the Indian Ocean, some 3000 kilometres west. The determined Davidson spent two years preparing for her trip, scraping together money and learning to train the camels that would accompany her. In March 1977 – with four camels and Diggity in tow – Davidson set out on an epic journey through some of Australia’s most inhospitable desert country. Battling searing temperatures, altercations with wildlife, a lack of water and various other setbacks along the way, Davidson persevered and ultimately reached her destination after nine months of physical and psychological anguish. Davidson documented her journey in the best-selling book Tracks, which has subsequently been adapted into a film of the same name in which Mia Wasikowska embodies the persona of this courageous, single-minded woman who simply refuses to quit.
Directed by John Curran (Praise, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil), Tracks is perhaps the ultimate road movie. The two years spent in Alice Springs is covered in fairly quick time – necessarily so given the sheer magnitude of the journey to follow – but we do develop a clear understanding of the resistance Davidson encountered in garnering support for her trip. Having been ripped off and dismissed by many, Davidson remains unwavering in her desire to undertake the trek and ultimately, and somewhat begrudgingly, has to accept a sponsorship from National Geographic magazine which stipulates that a photographer is to accompany her for parts of the journey. Needless to say, Davidson is less than impressed but ultimately has no choice but to accept, a decision that subsequently proves critical in her survival. Adam Driver (Frances Ha, Lincoln) plays photographer Rick Smolan, an initially annoying presence whose patience and persistence eventually wins over Davidson and the audience.
Once the journey begins, Wasikowska really shines as a woman whose dogged determination knows no bounds. With limited dialogue in so many of the scenes, Curran and Wasikowska do an excellent job of revealing character through action, creating a portrait of a person determined to defy those who told her she couldn’t, or shouldn’t, undertake such an expedition. Not only was Davidson out to challenge what was expected of a young woman at that time in Australia’s history, but she was also out to prove that “an ordinary person is capable of anything.” Smolan’s visits bring the only respite from the isolation of her undertaking and eventually Davidson softens in her attitude towards him. At one point, Davidson is faced with a 160 mile detour (eight days travelling time) to avoid crossing sacred Aboriginal lands. However, such a diversion proves unnecessary when she gains the trust of respected elder Mr Eddie (a terrific Roly Mintuma) who accompanies her through the region and imparts wisdom aplenty along the way, reminiscent of David Gulpilil and Jenny Agutter in Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 classic Walkabout.
The narrative is punctuated by flashbacks of a childhood shattered by the suicide death of Davidson’s mother, which seems to have been the catalyst for her withdrawal from society. The episodic progression of the trip is broken up by encounters with the few people living, somewhat incredulously, in this most barren of landscapes. Whilst Curran utilises the typical conventions of the genre – such as maps and montages – to track Davidson’s progress, he is certainly in no hurry and ensures that the sheer magnitude of her undertaking is articulated through vivid widescreen imagery courtesy of cinematographer Mandy Walker, who also lensed Australia. Having already demonstrated her considerable acting chops in a range of diverse roles (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids are Alright, Lawless, Stoker) this is a breakthrough moment for Wasikowska, on whose shoulders this film very firmly rests. She handles the pressure with aplomb and articulates the physical and emotional transformation of the character with subtlety and sincerity.
Tracks is a film that will no doubt confound those for whom the idea of watching somebody traipsing through the Australian outback does not appeal. However, the sheer audacity of Davidson’s undertaking, the stunning Australian scenery, Wasikowska’s performance as the intrepid adventurer and the obligatory happy ending make for an engaging against-the-odds drama that will hopefully find an audience.