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

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

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…

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

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…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***