The high-profile movie about a walking woman arrives in December, when Reese Witherspoon heads out across the Pacific Crest Trail in the film version of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir Wild. For now, though, there’s Tracks, an Australian film based on an older memoir by Robyn Davidson about an even more remarkable journey, and one of the most visually beautiful films you’ll see this year.
In 1977, with financial backing from National Geographic magazine in exchange for access, Davidson set out across the Outback on a 1,700-mile journey with four camels and her beloved black dog. The idea of walking across that vast desert with camels is inspired, and Tracks provides a unique Australian history lesson: Introduced to the country in the years before the railways came, camels were released into the desert once they were no longer needed for transportation. Instead of dying out, they flourished.
As the film opens, Robyn (the terrific Mia Wasikowska of The Kids Are All Right, Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre) signs on to work at a camel ranch to learn about the animals, even though every man she meets is quick to tell her such a journey can’t be done. The film wisely keeps the training to a bare minimum — this is not The Camel Whisperer, and the creatures never develop particularly notable personalities — and before long stubborn Robyn sets off, making arrangements to meet up a few times on the road with Rick, the awkward but earnest National Geographic photographer (the equally first-rate Adam Driver of Girls, who seems to be in everything these days — for good reason).
Robyn, however, resents his presence; she wants to be alone in the wilderness, with only the animals for company (she even balks at taking a radio but is persuaded by a chorus of concerned voices). In ethereal flashback, we see glimpses of her unhappy childhood, which presumably has had some effect on her desire to shun society, but they’re unnecessary. Tracks makes a strong case for the intrinsic beauty — and necessity, for some of us — of solitude and silence.
Robyn’s expedition is not without its harrowing moments — the worst is heartbreaking, and tender-hearted animal lovers should be wary — but overall Tracks doesn’t move with the obvious breakneck speed of a typical big-budget adventure. Instead, director John Curran (The Painted Veil) settles for a more leisurely, reflective pace, as Robyn quietly begins to connect with the people she meets: Rick; Aboriginals; sun-leathery desert rats. The change in her is not dramatic until tragedy lays her low and makes her question her course. But in a quietly moving performance, Wasikowska lets us understand that challenging yourself is a reward all its own.
The cinematography is stunning, but the camera doesn’t merely focus on gorgeous vistas. It captures the sweaty, unpleasant details, too. Robyn’s skin cracks and burns and peels; foam sprays from the camels’ mouths; flies buzz around eyes and lips; carcasses hang grimly from hooks. In the end, though, bad luck and sorrow, fear and loneliness aren’t enough to sway Robyn — or us — from this magnificent journey.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver.
Director: John Curran.
Screenwriter: Marion Nelson. Based on the book by Robyn Davidson.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 112 minutes. Thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language. Playing in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Parisian