Skip to main content

The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.


Walkabout
(1971)

WARNING SPOILERS Nicolas Roeg’s first fully-fledged film, following the co-directed Performance, is a coming-of-age tale of unparalleled insight, flowing with the distinct and rich visual approach to narrative that would define, and be refined in, his subsequent career.

The bare bones of plot are straightforward (Edward Bond's screenplay was only 14 pages); a teenage schoolgirl (Jenny Agutter, luminous) and her young brother (Luc Roeg, the director’s son) are left to fend for themselves in the Outback when their father takes his life (having attempted to take them with him). A young Aboriginal man (David Gulpilil, now very well known but in his first film role) comes to their aid, himself undergoing the walkabout ritual of passage to adulthood. It is the sensibility that Roeg brings to the piece that dazzles, with an intelligence and understanding that he imbues in every frame. He is a rare director of unspoken insight, thematic depth and resonance.

The backdrop of nature, both harsh and beautiful, is a constant accompaniment as the boy sees himself in an adventure while the girl is preoccupied with survival and her lack of knowledge of how to protect her brother. When the Aboriginal boy arrives this is exposed further, as she is frequently uncomprehending of his intentions and behaviour. Her brother, in contrast, has no preconceptions and is quickly able to communicate with him, despite the language barrier.

The theme of innocence, both of nature and youth, is central to Roeg throughout. Sometimes this translates a little heavy-handedly, as do some of his visual and editing choices. Agutter’s gaze is fixed upon Guliplil’s modest covering, acknowledging her nascent sexuality, but it is intercut with her imagining of the site of her father’s burnt out car overrun by similarly unfettered Aborigines. The lasciviousness of the scientists (and workers) undertaking weather experiments is played a touch too broadly as a contrast to the trio’s experience. It shouts out the theme it is highlighting. The men drool over the female scientist while Agutter swims naked, carefree and momentarily attuned wit her enviroment (as if to emphasise this, the Aboriginal boy is not present, even in a voyeuristic capacity). The encounter that follows with a woman whose husband belittles his Aboriginal workers, which the Aboriginal boy studiously leads the siblings away from (although this would surely have resulted in a speedier return by them to the safety of civilization), is more effective but still feels slightly like it is ladling what would be more effective table spooned.

The (staggered) return to civilization underlines that the freedom of nature and of their companionship has been fleeting, as death bookends the experiences of sister and brother. Arriving at a deserted farm where there appear to be unmarked graves, the girl fearfully rejects the Aboriginal boy’s courtship ritual; tellingly she has earlier announced her boundary lines, both in terms of class and culture, when she instructs him to fetch water. Spurned, he commits suicide. The coda as Agutter’s character, now married and in a domestic arrangement not dissimilar to the one we saw her father in at the opening, daydreams of her Outback experience (more idyllically than we saw it) shows her longing for an experience she was unable to fully understand and appreciate at the time.

Roeg’s direction and photography are stunning, and John Barry’s score is beautiful and evocative. The central performances are natural and lucid and, as with all of Roeg’s work, there is an approach to editing that shows keen awareness of the fractured nature of consciousness, experience and memory. That, and a pervading sense of the individual’s interaction with his or her environment (be it unvarnished nature or the concrete jungle). The theme of the alien figures strongly throughout his first decade or so as a director; alien to oneself, to those around one, and to one’s environment. It seems a little churlish not to give this quite the full grade, but Roeg occasionally smites the screen when he might be better to work more subtly (the cuts from Gulpilil hunting to a butcher chopping up meat tend to oversell the message). Nevertheless, it is a film to be savoured, from a true master of cinema who goes ever under-appreciated.

****1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

As I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.

Dances with Wolves (1990)
(SPOILERS) Kevin Costner’s Oscar glory has become something of a punching bag for a certain brand of “white saviour” storytelling, so much so that it’s even crossed over seamlessly into the SF genre (Avatar). It’s also destined to be forever scorned for having the temerity to beat out Goodfellas for Best Picture at the 63rdAcademy Awards. I’m not going to buck the trend and suggest it was actually the right choice – I’d also have voted Ghost above Dances, maybe even The Godfather Part III – but it’s certainly the most “Oscar-friendly” one. The funny thing, on revisit, is that what stands out most isn’t its studiously earnest tone or frequent but well-intentioned clumsiness. No, it’s that its moments of greatest emotional weight – in what is, after all, intended to shine a light on the theft and destruction of Native American heritage – relate to its non-human characters.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.

Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbi…

Everything has its price, Avon.

Blake's 7 4.1: Rescue

Season Four, the season they didn’t expect to make. Which means there’s a certain amount of getting up to speed required in order for “status quo” stories to be told. If they choose to go that route. There’s no Liberator anymore as a starting point for stories; a situation the show hasn’t found itself in since Space Fall. So where do they go from here? Behind the scenes there’s no David Maloney either. Nor Terry Nation (I’d say that by this point that’s slightly less of an issue, but his three scripts for Season Three were among his best).

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).