In April of 1977 a young woman named Robyn Davidson set out walking from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia on a 1,700 mile trek through Western Australia, much of it desert, to the Indian Ocean on the west coast, where she arrived nine months later. She was accompanied by four camels and her dog, Diggity. Robyn’s epic undertaking was funded by National Geographic, in exchange for allowing photographic coverage by an American, Rick Smolan, who visited Robyn periodically along the way.
Robyn published an account of the journey in her book Tracks in 1980. As Rick Smolan said in an interview with myself and several others this past Monday, Robyn wrote the book entirely from memory, as she kept no notes or journal on her journey. I hadn’t heard of Robyn or her book until I read about the film version, but as producer Eric Sherman said, “Tracks is one of those books that pretty much every Australian knows. It’s sort of a seminal epic Australian story.”
That story has been turned into an extraordinary film that opens here in limited release this Friday, September 19th, after successful screenings at many film festivals last year, including Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, as well as San Francisco and Seattle earlier this year. But it didn’t happen overnight. Reportedly there had been five previous attempts to film the book in the 1980s and ’90s. Julia Roberts was “attached” to star as Robyn Davidson in 1993. Nicole Kidman and Helen Hunt were also mentioned at various times. But it was Mia Wasikowska who was finally cast as Robyn. Having seen the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Wasikowska playing the part. She really owns it. Filming finally began in October of 2012 with John Curran directing from a script by Marion Nelson. The results are amazing, inspiring, unsentimental, thought-provoking, and incredibly human. I loved it.
Like most people in this country, my first exposure to Mia Wasikowska was in 2008 in the HBO series In Treatment as Sophie, a tightly-wrapped teenage gymnast undergoing psychotherapy. She was explosive, violent, suicidal, and totally got my attention in the role. (I’ve since learned, by the way, that Wasikowska is pronounced VAH-shee-KOF-ska. Maybe everyone knows this, but I was clueless. She was born in Australia and her mother is Polish.) Mia Wasikowska has done great work since then in features that include Defiance (2008), Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Kids Are All Right (2010), Jane Eyre (2011), and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), to name but a few.
Per Rick Smolan, the extent to which Mia embodied Robyn was uncanny. He also said, “What’s amazing about Mia is she reminds me of a young Meryl Streep, you don’t even believe it’s the same person from movie to movie, she completely transforms into that character. As somebody who spent three months traveling with the real Robyn, it was eerie watching (Mia) become Robyn.” Several weeks before shooting began, Mia and Robyn Davidson traveled to South Australia so Mia could meet the camels and Robyn could show her how to work with them.
John Curran says he’d heard of Adam Driver because of the HBO series Girls, and began to consider him for the role of Rick Smolan when he came across a blog that described Driver as “…weird and fantastic.” This piqued Curran’s interest. Driver has an unpredictable, wonderfully off-center quality that feels just right for his role in Tracks. When asked if it was weird seeing himself on screen, Rick Smolan said, “Very.” Then he was asked if he felt that Adam Driver’s portrayal was authentic and if he’d taken liberties, and Smolan said, “My brother’s a director, so he said they’re going to have to make you into a jerk at the beginning, and then hopefully you’re better by the end of the movie.” He added, “It was the most interesting year of my life, being out there with this woman (Robyn).”
John Curran’s direction is straightforward and intensely quiet. He never gets in the way of the material; he lets it speak for itself and doesn’t amp up moments that are powerful enough in their own right. Curran’s films all have strong female characters. In addition to Mia Wasikowska in Tracks, I’m thinking especially of Laura Dern’s powerhouse performance in We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004). Tracks has an ineffable quality that at times has echos of such Australia films as Picnic at Hanging Rock (d. Peter Weir, 1975) and Walkabout (d. Nicolas Roeg, 1971). These films have a strangeness that feels almost extraterrestrial, especially that scene in Walkabout with Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” playing in the distance when the father shoots himself to death in his car after driving with his children into the Outback. All of these films have an expectant air about them, like something terrible or great is about to happen, but you don’t know what. When Mia loses her compass at one point, it made me think of Peter O’Toole losing his compass during an arduous desert crossing in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but unlike O’Toole, she finds hers. And promptly gets lost, but Diggity gets her home.
Animals are major characters in Tracks, as is the landscape itself. This film could not have been shot in a studio, and Robyn could not have made the trip without the aid of her four camels, Bubs, Dookie, Zeleika and Zeleika’s calf, Goliath. At first I thought, camels in Australia? Then I learned early in the film that camels were brought to Australia in 1840 to help transport people and goods because they were well suited to desert country. When motorized vehicles replaced them, most of the camels were turned loose, and now Australia has the world’s largest population of feral camels.
Here is a short clip of Mia and her camels. In voiceover we hear the letter she writes to National Geographic requesting sponsorship for her venture. It also has a nice taste of the very effective music score by Garth Stevenson.
There’s so much about Tracks that has stayed with me. Such as Mr. Eddy, the tribal Elder who travels with Robyn across sacred territory where women are not allowed to go unaccompanied. Mr. Eddy is portrayed by the indigenous Rolley Minutma in a wonderful performance that expresses an abundance of humor and dignity. Or the rather tender interlude when Mia encounters an old man and his wife living on a dried-up farm with nothing else in sight for miles around (it is the desert, after all). She spends a day or so with them, almost like a daughter with her parents. It’s hard to describe. Or the beautiful shot of an incredibly starry sky at night that fills the screen, and then dissolves into a tight close-up of Mia’s face as she watches the sky. Or her relationship with the camels and her dog Diggity (who we learn in the credits is played by a dog with the wonderful name of Special Agent Gibbs). At one point we hear her say in voice-over, “The universe gave us three things to make life bearable: hope, jokes, and dogs. But the greatest of these was dogs.” I was especially blown away by a shot of Mia swimming underwater in slow motion toward the camera; then she pauses and her hair billows forward in a way that’s beyond magical. – Ted Hicks
Below are clips from an interview with John Curran at the Venice Film Festival last year followed by an interview with Robyn Davidson & Mia Wazikowska.
And for those who really want to get into it, The Weinstein Company (U.S. distributor of Tracks) has provided impressively extensive production notes for the film.
And finally, here’s an excerpt from the book itself.