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TRACKS – Review
April 25, 2014
One of the most powerful gifts of cinema is often that of allowing you to discover fascinating and inspirational true stories you’ve never heard of for one reason or another. I wasn’t even born when Robyn Davidson faced the incredible real-life journey she later chronicled in her international best-selling book Tracks but I’m extremely grateful that someone decided to adapt her story for the screen. The material easily lends itself to the visual storytelling form of the cinematic art and director John Curran has undoubtedly crafted a picture that’s stunning to behold as much as it’s deeply affecting in the way it stirs our unrequited souls.
In 1975, a young woman in her mid-twenties, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), reaches the remote town of Alice Springs in Australia, accompanied by her beloved dog Diggity, determined to set on a journey that will help her find herself or at least fill her emptiness inside. Although she’s not exactly sure about what will be able to fill that void or what it is that she’s truly missing, she believes she’ll find the answers on a trip through the Outback’s desert, covering 1700 miles from Alice Springs all the way to the Indian Ocean. Robyn is set to face the daunting task all by herself since she doesn’t seem to connect with other human beings all that well. All she needs are camels to carry her gear and some funds. She works for some camel farmers to the point of exploitation for almost two years in order to learn how to work with the animals and eventually earn the three camels she needs for her travels. But she actually winds up with four beasts since one of them is pregnant.
It’s clear from the start that there’s something eerily restless about Robyn, as the film kicks off with the hint of a flashback from her childhood that keeps coming back along the way with more details. But once fully disclosed, the pivotal episode that defines her backstory isn’t meant to be necessarily the justification of Robyn’s life choices. It surely is quite an affecting event that has contributed to shape her persona but the feeling we get from the story is that there’s something deeply innate about her enigmatic state of heart and mind. The wonderful Mia Wasikowska is absolutely perfect at delivering Robyn’s mysterious inner turmoil and detachment from the world. When her best friend visits her temporary lodging in Alice Springs with a group of friends, Robyn is happy to see her but at the same time she’s evidently perturbed by the invasion from these other people. As they drink and discuss politics and other student life matters, Robyn gets really edgy and has to get away from them.
It’s no surprise how Robyn doesn’t feel at ease among her piers. She has left the student life behind after all and has survived with any small job she has found, no matter how humble. Yet she needs money to make her trip a reality so she has no choice but cave in when a young man that’s part of this group of visitors, a certain Rick Smoland (Adam Driver), offers his help. He’s an American photographer traveling on a job for National Geographic and he thinks they might be interested in sponsoring her trip. Robyn reluctantly accepts the offer and can no longer back out of it when she finds out that the funds are going to be granted to her on the sole non negotiable condition that Rick follows her travels and meets her along the way periodically in order to document the journey through photographs.
It’s only the first compromise Robyn will have to make in order to proceed with her plan but that’s just how life is probably teaching her the importance of relying on others. Rick, played by the brilliant Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls’ fame is a lively human being whose idiosyncratic humor eventually affects Robyn, despite at first she sees him as a burden and someone who’s solely interested in taking photographs. Surely Rick is indeed focused on his reportage mission, sometimes even to the extremes of rule-breaking like for instance when he intrudes the secret business of the Aboriginal tribes they meet along the way. But Rick also becomes a comfort for Robyn during her toughest moments and each time he shows up on the road in between long stretches of loneliness, their bond inevitably grows.
Director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil, Stone) does a marvelous job at capturing the spirit of the story aided by the stunning work of director of photography Mandy Walker. The Australian landscapes just leap off the screen in all their mysterious and ancestral beauty and the actors were allowed to gravitate in those spaces with extreme freedom to bring their own instincts to the table beyond the script that still manages to be a solid blueprint for their journey, despite not necessarily sticking with the source material in every detail. The actual Robyn Davidson waited a long time to find the right filmmakers to entrust the rights of her book with. In the end this isn’t just another novel. This is her life. And she wanted to make sure that her story was going to be told in an Australian film and without getting the Hollywood treatment.
It most definitely feels like her patience paid off as Tracks is far from being a commercial epic journey filled with those typical Hollywood moments. Some may find the lack of a more traditional narrative as an element that slows down the pace and makes things less exciting. Truth is that the epic value of the film is that of remaining faithful to the story and not sensationalize Robyn’s journey. After all, she suffered enough the intrusion of tourists and journalists that occasionally would show up during the nine months of her trip as she quickly became famous as the “camel lady”. So it’s only fair that a cinematic adaptation of her breath-taking experience remains faithful to the intimate and philosophical spirit of her real life journey. Tracks isn’t just a stunning cinematic achievement for your stupefied eyes to behold on the silver screen in all its visual beauty, it’s a deeply affecting journey of the human soul that will speak to all of us who are restless inside. Believe me when I say that on your way home after credits roll, you’ll feel an insurmountable urge to set off on an exotic adventure…
TRACKS is out in UK cinemas on April 25
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor