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.