Skip to main content

The decision to act was in itself the beginning of the journey.

Tracks
(2013)

A young woman’s journey of self-discovery across the Outback. It’s a description that could be aptly applied to Walkabout, but it also fits this oft attempted – but hitherto unsuccessfully, can you imagine the Julia Roberts version without shuddering? – adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s novel. Tracks is a very different bactrian to Nicolas Roeg’s classic rites of passage tale, and takes a literal, methodical approach to its trek. Surprisingly, this staunch linearity (how else would one depict a quest, one might ask), so typical of the biographical movie, is not a drawback; John Curran’s film unfolds measuredly, slowly weaving its spell as it encourages us to embrace the barren beauty of Davidson’s expedition. And in Mia Wasikowska he has found a naturally sympathetic lead, inviting empathy with the sometimes-difficult protagonist.


Davidson was compelled by a nomadic yearning to embark on a 1, 700 mile trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean.  No one thought she could it, and tried to dissuade her, but as she says at the start, there are two kind of nomads; those at home everywhere and those at home nowhere, and she is the latter. Davidson just wants to get away from people, and her plan involves travelling the route with a quartet of camels and her faithful hound Diggity. Her fitful attempts to get started take up a portion of the opening passage,as she gets fleeced by a disreputable camel farmer who doesn’t make good on his promise to pay her in the animals. When finally she sets off, it looks initially as if director John Curran and screenwriter Marion Nelson have misstepped. Robyn’s journey looks as if it will be entirely defined by her monthly meetings with National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver, fast becoming ubiquitous, but nothing like as ubiquitous as the ubiquitous James Franco; luckily, and surprisingly, he doesn’t show up), assigned to record the foot-first feat. This serves to more than establish her frosty façade, giving the haplessly well-meaning fellow continued short shrift, but it seems as if they are missing the point of what she is doing.


Not to fear, as once Curran really gets underway, and Robyn encounters an Aborigine elder who leads her across their sacred ground (women are not allowed unaccompanied), we see a different, more accepting side and with it the picture hits its groove. When she sets out into the vastest stretch of desert, where Rick has very decently laid a trail of water cans lest she perish, the picture even allows itself to slip into an unfussily meditative gear. Robyn is (literally) unfettered – in one scene she has her own Jenny Agutter bathing moment - and enters her own altered state of abandon amid the desolation. Her most eventful encounters – an attack by bull camels, her camels making off without her one morning, the horrible fate that befalls Diggity – provide some dramatic meat but Curran is mainly content to allow the picture to be what it is, to meander when it needs to and not push it along or pep it up. I enjoyed his two previous pictures, The Painted Veil and Stone – both with Edward Norton – very much, and this might exceed either.


We reach the point where, rather than wishing Robyn would spend time with those she encounters, we want her to leave them as soon as possible so she can be free again. For all its great untamed expanse, the desert is a place of (mostly) safety and comfort. So when a crowd of noisy reporters sets upon her, desperate to interview “The Camel Lady”, the distress of one who has spent so long in solitary contemplation is palpable. Curran is too smart to attempt a dissection of what goes on under Robyn’s lid; his trick is that he enables us to empathise with her doing what she does rather than overtly explaining it.


That said, there is an undercurrent of cod-psychology in the unnecessary flashbacks. They are a bit eggy, leading us by the hand (do we really need the fateful departure of her childhood hound as a foreshadowing of the incredibly upsetting demise of her current pooch), when it might be more satisfying to allow us the benefit of speculating as to her drive (the unfortunate effect of the flashbacks is that they suggest she does nothing but think about the loss of her mother, and going to live with her aunt; there’s clearly much more backstory as we discover when she happens upon a kindly sun-beaten farming couple, that isn’t directly to do with those events). The picture is better at making us conscious that the adverse consequences that come with her strong-willed decisions, not out of overt criticism but because to illustrate that to do what she wants to do she must also face what she really doesn’t, be it having her male camel castrated, angrily beating him after he runs off, shooting the male bulls or having to put down Diggity.


Wasikowska is outstanding in the lead, and it’s with her solo that we spend the majority of the picture (with an accompanying menagerie, of course). At first Robyn’s voiceover announces itself in an off-puttingly over-written manner, a mouthful of words, but that in itself works in fostering a gradual appreciation of her.  If we aren’t invited into Robyn’s inner world, Wasikowska makes those things that bring her peace and validation more than clear.


Driver is lends strong support as the likeable goof towards whom Robyn gradually thaws. Roly Mintuma’s Eddie, persuasively benign and ever chatty to an uncomprehending Robyn, also makes a strong impression (this might be the most upbeat section of the picture). Then there’s Diggety, charmingly played by Special Agent Gibbs; there’s a lovely uplifting scene in which Robyn, searching for her compass, is unable find her way back to the camel train; she instructs “Diggity, go home!” and the faithful hound leads her back to them.


Mandy Walker, who lensed Australia for Baz Lurhmann is given the chance here to allow the desert images to linger and sing. It’s a gorgeously shot film, with vistas both familiar (a flickering mirage) and uncanny (a motorcyclist arriving out of the darkness like an astronaut stepping onto the Moon; he may as well be from a dream world to Robyn, who turns over disinterested in his prattle and goes back to sleep). Garth Stevenson’s percussive score is also a perfect match, gently pushing the picture forward but holding back on the urge to get overly inspirational.


Biographical adaptations often go astray through being over earnest or trying to cram in too much exposition. Curran has done neither and the result is captivating picture, one that gently musters reflection on our lives and what we do with them, how we see others and ourselves, by letting Robyn’s obscurely motivated trek speak for itself. As she says, “I believe when you’ve been stuck for too long in one spot, it’s best to throw a grenade where you’re standing and jump – and pray.






Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

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…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…