VENICE – Packing films, as one would sardines, into the snug, air-locked space of even the biggest festival always uncovers unforeseen parallels and commonalities, making happy bedfellows of works that otherwise wouldn”t have much to say to each other. With John Curran”s wonderful Australian adventure “Tracks” having just christened the Competition 24 hours after Alfonso Cuaron”s mindboggling space thriller “Gravity” opened the fest, it seems we have this year”s first pair of Lido buddies: two days in, Venice 2013 is the festival of women fighting the elements.
That”s a glib reading, of course, and one that does a disservice to both films” subtleties, some of them also shared. With the Outback desert a pretty indomitable (not to mention indomitably pretty) presence from the outset, “Tracks” seems a woman-versus-land story only until it emerges that the land is a reflection of the woman herself.
In 1975, Robyn Davidson, a hard-headed, 25-year-old Queensland native, set out for Alice Springs to pursue her dream of walking the 2000-mile expanse of desert between that particular middle of nowhere and the Indian Ocean. She almost certainly didn”t imagine (or wish) her story would become mainstream film fodder; unassumingly severe and openly self-oriented, she”s a figure who wouldn”t appear to have much time at all for other versions of other lives. Yet her expansive, plainspoken memoir “Tracks,” with its satisfyingly challenging central quest and self-evidently cinematic backdrop, has been an obvious siren call to film producers for decades now. Julia Roberts was attached to the project in the mid-1990s, a possibility both intriguing and hazardous: it”s hard to imagine the naturally plucky star marrying herself to the environment in quite the way that Davidson”s personal narrative requires, that mile-wide smile filling up with windblown sand.
Good things come to those who wait, and the (very) good thing in this case is Mia Wasikowska, the tranquil-faced Australian actress who, at 23, is even younger than Davidson was when she embarked on her impossibly possible journey. Pale and birch-like, possessed of an unusual beauty that doesn”t come separate from an innate intelligence, she has successfully built her career so far on a kind of cool but relatably reticent quality: through starring roles in the likes of “Jane Eyre” and “Stoker”, she”s become a go-to girl for characters who are nobody”s go-to girls. As such, she”s ideal for the role of Robyn, a woman who doesn”t mean to be antisocial, but has strictly rationed practical use for the company – social, professional or even sexual – of others. “How can you tell a nice person to just crawl into a hole and die?” she asks a sympathetic benefactor at one point. In Wasikowska”s quiet phrasing, it”s not a facetious question.
That nice person who initially takes the brunt of Davidson”s people problem – well, that”s what he chooses to call it, at least – is Rick Smolan (the winningly strange Adam Driver), the gauche but eager American photographer assigned by National Geographic to document her journey at various points along the way. For her, his presence is a necessary but invasive imposition: the magazine may be bankrolling her endeavor, but she has no idea how to publicly present a trial she”s undergoing for reasons that aren”t just private, but hard to articulate even to herself.
“I just want to be by myself,” is the explanation she offers near the beginning to anyone who asks, as the film in a straightforward backstory that gives some context to the high-security aura surrounding this barefoot Garbo. And initially, solitude is just what the parched beauty of the Outback – never more gleamingly filmed, by ace cinematographer Mandy Walker, than right at the beginning – offers her and her hard-won entourage of surly, belching camels, shepherded by a bright-eyed black labrador.
But finding your bliss is harder than keeping it, and as the cumulative stresses of hard earth and harder sun take their inevitable toll on her mind and person, Robyn comes to realize that the desert isn”t her opponent so much as a manifestation of her own spartan independence: her trek is precisely as difficult as she”s making it for herself. Her gradual acquiescence to the kindness of strangers – notably Eddy, a wizened but uncuddly Aboriginal guide (played with grace and occasional hilarity by Rolley Mintuma) she hires to lead her through otherwise forbidden sacred country – is as rewarding a narrative arc as her steady progress toward the Indian Ocean, yet the film steers happily clear of banal help-me-help-you sentiment. She may thaw toward Rick (as well she might, given that the role seems reformatted for Driver”s quizzical charms), but an early, impulsive kiss between the two doesn”t go quite where you fear it will. Marion Nelson”s spare but full-bodied script goes lighter than Davidson”s book on the late-1970s feminism, but “Tracks””s heroine leaves the film, as she enters it, wholly her own woman.
It”s become critical cliché to describe environment as character in cinema, but that”s not to say many films pull off the metaphor particularly well – and given the personal and spiritual mirroring function served by the desert in Davidson”s story, it”s a vital that this film does so. The best decision made by director Curran, who manages proceedings with all the unobtrusively classical elegance he did his underrated adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham”s “The Painted Veil,” was to get Mandy Walker behind the camera. The Aussie DP is best known for her lacquered Outback vistas in Baz Luhrmann”s “Australia,” but this more intimate epic requires the tonal and textural detailing of her work in small-scale character dramas “Lantana” and “Shattered Glass.” The delicate modulations of her clay-and-fire palette here are particularly extraordinary, as the sun bakes the earth and Wasikowska”s freckled complexion alike to a similarly mottled terracotta hue. Toward the end, as the camera lingered on a closeup of Robyn”s worn, wounded back, I took a second to realize it wasn”t an establishing landscape shot. (Points, too, to the makeup team”s vivid but unshowy work.)
British writer Sophia McDougall recently wrote a superb essay in which she railed against the stony, supposedly commendable Hollywood archetype of the Strong Female Character: “Agency is far more important than ‘strength”,” she writes, before yearning for more female protagonists “who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness.” I thought of those words again and again as I watched “Tracks,” which honors its subject”s stoic reserve, but allows a strain of warm calico romanticism into her remarkable story. It”s a contrast that feels apt for a heroine whose physical endurance is beyond reproach, but whose personal limitations, more interestingly, fluctuate being propelling and impeding her journey.