Camels and landscapes shine in ‘Tracks,’ the true story of an outback trek
In an extremely good adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s 1976 memoir Tracks, director John Curran (The Painted Veil) flaws his work by trying to settle a question: why would a woman set out on a 1700-mile walk, over some of the harshest terrain on earth? (“Who did she think she was, a man?”) Davidson’s 1975 trek took more than half a year; she, her dog and four camels crossed the center of Australia, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean.
It is fair to consider this walkabout in context of the mid-’70s feminist days-of-rage. Then, there was an even stronger and stupider backlash to common principles of women’s rights than you’ll see today. This explains the heroine’s stiffness when dealing with helpful men. Every offer of aid felt like patronization. Robyn (Mia Wasikowska) mutters: “I can deal with pigs real easy, but nice people confound me.”
The trip begins in the Outback we remember from Wake in Fright—sun exhaustion, raving men and cold welcomes. Robyn has come from the city to find someone who will train her in the art of breaking wild camels. She squats in a roofless burned-out house while she apprentices with a vicious German. Stymied by the lack of money for a trip, she’s introduced to a friend of a friend, Jack Fisher (Adam Driver of Girls). Jack is a National Geographic photographer who is sure he can help her raise the funds.
It’s an interesting relationship—if it counts as one. Davidson admitted that she succumbed to the real-life Jack but she later rejected him, in print, as a pest who kept putting stones in her path. (Apparently the real photographer, Rick Smolan, is now trying to Kickstart a book of his photos of this trip.)
Thanks to the ease with which Wasikowska helps us under Robyn’s skin, we too get a stomach ache at the sight of Fisher’s avocado-green Land Rover. Because of the yappy, beaky photographer—the motor drive on his Nikon making mechanical smooching noises like an amorous robot—we long with Davidson to get out under the big skies.
But Curran persists in softening this woman. Constant flashbacking to childhood trauma explains why Davidson wanted to prove herself. The hardest ordeal Davidson went through on the trail is directed in authentic Blair Witch swaying- flashlight horror. But Curran won’t stay in the moment: it’s just the gateway to another flashback.
The desert silences aren’t smothered with narration—a bum director would have tried that first. This most ancient of ancient lands speaks for itself. Lyrical spots—the sudden appearance of a water-tank for a swim—contrasts with the ordeal, such as sand so hot Robyn has to make burlap booties for the youngest camel.
Critic Manny Farber complained that the only interesting shape in Lawrence of Arabia was a camel. Curran, not David Lean, sold me on what interesting shapes camels have. They’re not used for comedy; they’re the comeliest camels ever seen. They have curved teeth like scimitars. They snarl and bray. When bulls go into rut, they unhinge their jaws sideways and slaver.
Robyn learns a little from Afghan-Australian camel wrangler (played by John Flaus, apparently a well-known academic and anarchist in Aus). Flaus is a master of the sidelong cowboy compliment, rivaling Sam Elliott himself: “You’re an odd girl, Robyn Davidson,” sounds like warm-hearted praise. He gives advice about encountering a wild bull camel in the Outback: “Don’t think, just shoot.” It’s another of many moments that makes Tracks, if not a western, a Southern.
The role of Davidson—of lunar loneliness and strength–is the kind of experience that is bound to transform an already first-rate actress. We’ve already seen what Wasikowska was capable of in the masterpiece 2011 version of Jane Eyre. So it’s even more exciting to think of where she’ll go next. Particularly splendid is a spare scene of her welcome by an old rural couple (Edwin Hodgeman and Carol Burns); it epitomizes the film’s inherent intelligence and silence.
TRACKS With Jack Fisher, Mia Wasikowska, and John Flaus. Directed by John Curran. Rated PG-13; 112 min. Opens Friday. PHOTO: Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) walked 1700 miles across the Australian outback with only camels and her dog for company.