What a wonder. So much could have gone wrong with this project, yet so little has. John Curran's picture tells the astonishing true story of Robyn Davidson's nine-month walk from the centre of Australia to the nation's distant west coast.
Tracks was always going to look lovely. The sheer audacity of Davidson's exploits – she was accompanied only by camels and a Labrador for most of the journey – was sure to trigger astonished gasps. But such projects often end up looking like worthy, educative emissions of the National Geographic Society (a sponsor of the trek).
Curran has made something considerably more hard-edged from Davidson’s memoir. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is carefully composed and saturated with the expected dusty reds, but she and Curran allow the outback to be alien, hostile and forbidding. The film is genuinely interested in the few people Robyn encounters: one absurdly isolated elderly couple, a few infuriatingly vulgar tourists, several fatalistic indigenous Australians. The camel wrangling is beyond compare.
Most of the credit must, however, go to the utterly splendid Mia Wasi- kowska. The film's version of Robyn Davidson could so easily have ended up more irritating than the deluded hero of Sean Penn's Into the Wild. She sighs like a spoilt teenager when an American photographer (Adam Driver) explains that he will have to accompany her for small sections of the journey. She is unmoved by her own family's concern. Indeed, Robyn seems to find all humanity a terrible inconvenience.
Still, ever redder of nose, ever more bedraggled about the hair, Wasikowska, without much dialogue, invests the character with complexity, intelligence and charisma. (Incidentally, closing images of the real Robyn confirm that, implausibly, she is every bit as glamorous as the star who ended up playing her.)
The attempts to explain Davidson's motivations via a series of flashbacks are a tad clumsy and entirely unnecessary. For the most part, however, this remains an impressively odd paean to the Australian interior that (just about) bares comparison with Nic Roeg's great Walkabout (1970).
I do wish Robyn had worn a hat though. It gets a bit balmy out there.