“It seems to me the universe gave us three gifts to make life bearable—hope, jokes and dogs,” muses Robyn Davidson (Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) in the handsome true-life travelogue Tracks. “But the greatest of these gifts,” she concludes, “was dogs.”
And indeed, the spare script from Marion Nelson—adapted from Davidson’s 1980 memoir, itself an outgrowth of her wildly popular 1978 cover story for National Geographic—finds the willowy Australian arriving in dusty Alice Springs with nothing but her beloved black Labrador, Diggity, in tow. The year is 1975, and the restless Davidson has grown tired of both city life and her country’s class system, which was still uncivil to the native Aborigines 40 years ago. She’s planning a 2,000-mile journey across the Outback, which will find her walking from the Northern Territories to the Indian Ocean, accompanied only by four-legged friends. Along with Diggity, she’ll be joined by a quartet of camels—Dookie, Bub, Zeleika and her son, Goliath—who will increasingly become more like 4,000-pound versions of her canine companion.
“I think you have a problem with people,” observes Rick Smolan (Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls), a talkative American photographer with little understanding of social cues. Still, the spectacled shutterbug is nice to a fault, so Davidson can’t get too upset with him when he’s assigned to capture her travels for National Geographic as a condition of the magazine’s sponsorship, even if her voyage was spawned by a desire to be alone.
To assuage any fears they may have for her wellbeing, Rick tells Robyn’s family that he’ll be meeting up with her “five or six times” over the course of the journey. “Two or three times,” she corrects, wary that she’ll be used as a puppet to strike poses, when all she really wants to do is pull her own strings. But is that all there is to her self-imposed walkabout?
After numerous false-starts—attributed to sexism, camel troubles and difficulties in securing the funding she begrudgingly realizes she needs—Robyn sets off on April 9, 1977, and one of the chief pleasures of this emotional slow-burner is that the reasons for her trek remain elusive. That’s not to say that there aren’t hints: The film periodically flashes back to the gold-coated dog she had in her youth, as well as to fleeting memories surrounding her mother’s suicide. We see that when her father (Robert Coleby) informed young Robyn (portrayed by Lily Pearl) of her mother’s death, this was but the start of bad news. He also told her that she would be sent to live with an aunt—the family, broke, had lost their home—and that her beloved pet would be put down.
But whether any of this is what pushes her to “pick up a bunch of junk, cart it 20 miles” across a scorching desert, “drop it, and then do it again” every day for more than half a year is left for us to decide.
The remarkably talented Wasikowska eerily resembles her attractive real-world counterpart (Smolan’s actual photographs appear under the film’s end credits). But the Australian-born actress’s natural beauty has done nothing to hinder her from choosing roles that would send most Hollywood-bred starlets fleeing, from the cold-blooded sociopath she played in Park Chan-wook’s flawed Stoker to her wildly antisocial turn here. Case in point: During an early rendezvous, as Rick photographs Robyn, she pulls a sand-encrusted shirt over her face, muttering to herself: “Parasite. Go away.” Over the months, though, his nerdy chatter becomes tolerable—even welcome—as an occasional respite from the blistering solitude.
Sex does enter the picture, but don’t think that Rick will end up a love interest. The real connection Robyn finds is a pure, uncomplicated one, formed when she’s joined for 200 miles of her journey by Mr. Eddie (Roly Mintuma, a relative of the man he portrays), an Aboriginal elder who agrees to guide her through “sacred country,” where women are not permitted to venture alone. They may not speak the same language, but then, that hasn’t hindered the love that Robyn shares with her animals during her picturesque travels.
And what pictures! The widescreen cinematography, captured on film by Mandy Walker and inspired by Smolan’s photographs, demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible; catch this one in the theater if you can.
When Robyn finally reaches her destination, she approaches the ocean with a sense of loss easily shared by anyone attuned to animals and nature. After 195 blistering days spent in the desert, the film ends underwater. The euphoric high of journey’s end is tempered with loneliness and a sense of things lost. The universe may provide gifts, but its answers remain stubbornly out of reach, with some of its jokes a cruel reminder of the fragility of life.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Lily Pearl, Philip Dodd, Fiona Press, Daisy Walkabout, Robert Coleby, John Flaus and Roly Mintuma. Written by Marion Nelson, based on the book by Robyn Davidson. Directed by John Curran. At Coolidge Corner, West Newton and in the suburbs.