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Non-Review Review: Tracks

Tracks looks absolutely stunning. Photographer Rick Smolan is credited as an inspiration for the look and feel of the film, which makes a great deal of sense – Smolan was the photographer tasked by National Geographic with documenting Robyn Davidson’s trek across Australia. His pictures, accompanying Davidson’s article in National Geographic, captured the raw beauty of the Australian countryside. Director John Curran and cinematographer Mandy Walker create a rich a vivid study of the journey.

The story itself is told at a leisurely pace, allowing the audience to absorb the scale of Davidson’s remarkable accomplishment – as if documenting the sheer breadth of the continent. Tracks isn’t quite perfect. It occasionally indulges a little too heavily in clichés while refusing to delve too far under the skin of its protagonist. Still, it’s a beautifully produced piece of cinema featuring a wonderful central performance and some absolutely breathtaking imagery.

"I walked through the desert with a camel with no name..."

“I walked through the desert with a camel with no name…”

Tracks is a wonderfully well-made piece of Australian cinema, packed with memorable visuals and an engaging central story. Robyn Davidson’s journey across Australia is rightly considered something of a modern legend. It’s a classic endurance tale – the story of a character setting out to accomplish an impossible task against overwhelming odds. It has the benefit of being entirely true, and of being set against the scenic backdrop of late seventies Australia.

In effect, Australia is the central character of Tracks, at least as much as Davidson herself. The country is incredibly photogenic, but it is also populated with interesting characters who have fascinating stories to tell. In a way, Davidson seems to be drifting between snapshots of Australia as it existed in the late seventies. She becomes something of a folk hero, crossing not only thousands of miles of land, but also all sorts of class boundaries.

A girl and her dog...

A girl and her dog…

Tracks opens with a very thoughtful note for any Aboriginal viewers, making them wary of any potential offence that might be caused by the movie’s content. It’s a very respectful note, and one that is mindful of the differences that exist between cultures. Tracks is very meticulous and very careful in its portrayal of the indigenous people of Australia, ethnic groups that are overlooked far too often and who are frequently reduced to novelties or stereotypes.

However, there are some elements of how Tracks approaches the indigenous population – or, at least, attitudes towards the native peoples – that feel a little cliché. The heroine of the picture, Robyn Davidson, is portrayed as anti-social and aggressive towards other people. At one point, she expresses the desire that Rick Smolan “crawl into a hole and die.” Smolan himself comes right out and suggests that she simply doesn’t like people at one point.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

And yet, despite this, our anti-social and difficult protagonist gets along perfectly well with the indigenous people she encounters along the way – and they are entirely accepting of her. In contrast, National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan is initially treated as a culturally insensitive fool. In his earnest eagerness to snap pictures of the local population, he is oblivious to the fact that the native people do not want their photographs taken. Even after he is told this, he remains bullish and self-centred, justifying his position by suggesting that his photos have the power to change the world.

And, yet, despite all this, the film assures us that Smolan is an experienced photographer who has worked with many high-profile publications in many different parts of the world. While he may have been over-eager, Tracks seem to present him as borderline unethical in his pursuit of the perfect photograph. Tracks lacks any real hint of nuance. There is no real ambiguity in his early clashes with Davidson; she is entirely correct and he is entirely wrong. He eventually learns to respect the indigenous people, a character arc that feels a little trite and cliché for an international photographer who has already worked around the world.

Just deserts...

Just deserts…

Indeed, the film seems entirely unwilling to question its central character. In order to finance her trip, Davidson agrees to allow National Geographic to sponsor her journey; and yet she spends the bulk of the movie complaining about how this seems to sully the experience. Tracks condemns the idea of trying to usurp the stories and cultures of other people for mass consumption. It treats the tourists and journalists eagerly (and thoughtlessly) snapping photographs of the “camel lady” with contempt. However, this all feels a little too simplistic.

While the film closes with text informing the viewer that Davidson contributed the text to the National Geographic article and went on to expand it into a best-selling book, Tracks, there’s never any real suggestion that her position might be a tad hypocritical. After all, Tracks is the story of how Robyn Davidson actively encouraged and enabled the transformation of something she defended as a deeply personal narrative into a larger story intended for mass production and consumption. These are big and complex ideas, and Tracks seems to avoid them completely.

She'll be outback if you need her...

She’ll be outback if you need her…

There’s something quite safe and comforting about the script to Tracks. Instead of an in-depth examination of Davidson’s attempts to control her own narrative, we get various flashbacks to Davidson’s personal history. These sequences are emotional and effective, but they do feel a little bit obligatory – as if providing the expected emotional hook to Davidson’s story. Some of these storybeats can’t help but seem a little bit on-the-nose.

To be entirely fair, these moments are introduced effectively and filmed atmospherically. They do creating the sense that Davidson’s journey is something of a waking dream – prone to drift from one subject or theme to another with little to tie them to the real world. As such, the wide open desert becomes something of a dreamscape, haunted by spectres and phantoms and nightmares.

The calves and calves nots...

The calves and calves nots…

Despite these weaknesses in the script, Tracks looks absolutely stunning. The Australian wilderness is photographed beautifully. Director John Curran frames his shots beautifully, capturing a sense of the continent’s majesty. The desert is shot in beautiful rusty reds that contrast spectacularly with the deep blue of water. Curran isn’t afraid of long still shots, allowing a moment to linger, or forcing the audience to spend a second reading the image to identify the point of focus.

The desert seems almost impossibly immense and vast – photographed from angles that emphasis how that sand and dirt just goes on and on and on. Long shots emphasis just how small Davidson and her makeshift caravan are in the grand scheme of things. The air ripples as the sun rises and sets, while debris left by the settlers is scattered across the landscape like so many crusted-over scars.

Making Tracks...

Making Tracks…

The collection of Rick Smolan’s photographs playing over the end credits assure the viewer that Curran and Walker have been entirely faithful to his vision of this most epic journey. There’s a wonderful sense of place and scale to the adventure – both on a personal level and in a larger context. As Davidson spends more time in the wilderness, reality seems to bend around her. There are brief surreal interludes that seem like they might have happened, but could have simply unfolded as strange lucid dreams.

Mia Wasikowska anchors Tracks as Robyn Davidson, giving the character an incredible sense of depth and complexity. Given that Davidson is the only human character on film for extended portions of Tracks, Wasikowska is left to carry large chunks of the movie. She does an exceptional job, demonstrating why she has become an actress to watch. As Davidson, Wasikowska is the perfect blend of over-confidence and insecurity, a figure who is perhaps far more complicated than she lets on – than the script allows.

5 Responses

  1. Interesting review!

    • Thanks David. What did you think?

      • I haven’t seen it yet. It’s getting its London preview today, though I’m not sure if I’ll get to the showing.

      • Hi Darren – I’ve had a chance to see the film since I originally replied. I liked it a lot (I’ve posted my own review). I agree with much of your review, though not entirely with what you said about the way Davidson and Smolan behaved, respectively, towards the Aborigines. It would have been interesting to know what Davidson thought about the male dominance among the Aborigines (something she apparently didn’t like in the white Australian population) – that was the one thing I was really curious about. However, the Aboriginal men seemed to behave respectfully towards her, unlike the white Aussie men we encountered at the start, so I don’t think her behaviour is too puzzling. And I wasn’t at all surprised by Smolan’s behaviour. Even with his experience he’s a photographer, and so he’s out to get the shot. I gather his role is more prominent in the film than in the book, so it’s just possible that some artistic license has been taken for the sake of dramatic conflict: on the other hand, Smolan is happily promoting the film on his Twitter site, so he must think it’s reasonably OK!

      • I suppose.

        I just really dislike the old “is a horrible person to everybody except the people it would be awkward to be horrible towards” trope – the idea that mean and angry people need to be nice to people who are victims of other prejudices. (Not suggesting that angry people are inherently racist or any such nonsense – I’m think more Harry Callahan’s “equal opportunity assholery.”)

        I think that combined with the opportunism of some of Robyn’s decisions – far from being a mark of integrity and respect for the natural world, it’s incredibly hypocritical to sell the rights to your journey and then complain about having to meet a representative every once in a while and pose for photos, especially when you are going to turn it into a best-selling article and book – didn’t sit right with me.

        There’s a point where she says something scathing to Smolan and he replies to the effect of “well, you asked us for money, didn’t you?” It feels like the film never explored that relationship as well it might, and just played to easy stereotypes.

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