May 15, 2014

Tracks [12A]

Dir: John Curran
I had an inkling of how good an actress Mia Wasikowska would prove to be right from the start.  I pretty much hated Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (as did all right thinking humans), but even in that ugly digital world there was something about the young Australian actress that stood out, beyond her obvious beauty.  Tracks gives Wasikowska one of her most challenging roles to date.  She plays Robyn Davidson who, in 1977, trekked largely alone across 1700 miles of desert from Alice Springs to the Pacific Ocean.  The film documents her walk and her relationship with National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), whose interest in the story made her adventure possible.  

For the bulk of the film's running time the actress is left alone (aside from four camels and a dog) to carry the film on her shoulders and she does an admirable job.  Wasikowska is a likeable presence and even at her spikiest (generally in the sometimes unwelcome moments that Rick shows up) Robyn remains a likeable character, someone whose journey we are happy to be along for the ride on.  Much of Robyn's journey has to be communicated through Wasikowska's physical performance and this is sometimes just as much the case when there is another character on screen as when Robyn is trekking alone.  Wasikowska is especially good in the scenes opposite Driver, her physical performance full of signs that he, somewhat understandably, misreads.

Driver has the only large role among the supporting cast and while the progression of Robyn and Rick's relationship is hardly a surprise both sides are well played.  Driver has a particularly good moment towards the end of the film, as Rick shows his concern as Robyn embarks on the most dangerous part of her trek.  The rest of the supporting cast largely appear for one or two scenes each, but while they've little time to develop rounded characters there are no performances that let the side down.

There is only so much that can be done with a story like Robyn Davidson's, and John Curran tells it in a very straight A to B fashion, however, this telling suits the story well.  The tale is linear, with bumps and encounters along the way.  Convenient as they may be as narrative stopgaps, Robyn's encounters with other people don't feel shoehorned in to the story, and the down to earth performances aid in avoiding much feeling of contrivance.

Curran does occasionally depart from the down to earth style that he lays down, with scenes that are more impressionistic.  The best of these is an almost surreal encounter with a man on a motorcycle trip through the same desert that Robyn is walking.  The abruptness and shooting style leave it up to audience interpretation whether this is a real moment or a mirage.  Less successful are the occasional flashbacks to Davidson's childhood.  They add little and, in one case involving Davidson's beloved dog, serve only to pour sugar on a genuine emotional moment.

Tracks looks pretty spectacular.  That's no real surprise, given the landscape it has to work with, but there are some beautiful choices by Curran and DP Mandy Walker  that show off both the terrain and Wasikowska's performance to their best advantage.  The most interesting visual moments often play with the idea of mirage, especially in a sequence in which Davidson is walking naked, but there are also some strikingly stark moments, particularly whenever Davidson has to use her rifle.

This isn't a film that anyone will mistake for being groundbreaking or even adventurous, but that's okay, it's impeccably made and acted and, happily, manages to tell Robyn Davidson's story without turning it into a sentiment drenched 'inspirational' tale.  This is a beautiful and compelling film and there are too few of those about in the mainstream. 

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