On the heels of Venice's opening-night film “Gravity” comes another dramatic tale of female isolation and empowerment in one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable. Adapted from Robyn Davidson's memoir of the same name, “Tracks” is a vastly engaging chronicle of the author's 1700-mile journey across the Australian Outback in 1977 with her dog Diggity, four ornery camels and infinite clouds of dust, beginning in Alice Springs and ending at the Indian Ocean. Along the way, she naturally encounters all manner of danger, from wild bull camels (Australia has 50,000 of the feral beasts roaming its interior) to her own physical and emotional limitations.
Julia Roberts was one of many actresses attached to “Tracks” during its long, difficult journey to the big screen, but it's Mia Wasikowska who impressively rises to the challenge of portraying Davidson, an unremarkable 27-year-old who mostly remains an enigma throughout the story. She has baggage - her mother hanged herself when she was nine - but Davidson's reasons for making this extreme, solitary trek remain as vague and indeterminate as they likely were to her at the time. “People ask me and I say, 'Why not?'” says Wasikowska at the start. No need to go much deeper than that, and the film doesn't beyond outlining Davidson's unquenchable thirst for solitude. Curran (who also directed “The Painted Veil” and “Stone” although this is superior to both) keeps the psychoanalysis to a minimum, which some may find frustrating.
Early sequences chart Davidson's chaotic, protracted acquisition of three camels (which become four after one gives birth), and her initial encounters with Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a manic National Geographic photographer who helps land her a commission with the magazine to fund the journey, only to become a frequent irritant (as well as part-time lover) as he crops up now and then to photograph Robyn on her journey through some of the bleakest, most unforgiving terrain on the planet.
The landscape is too brutal to turn “Tracks” into a pictureseque travelogue for the Australian tourist industry, but it exerts a mystical, hypnotic hold. And Curran captures it brilliantly, making the audience feel like they're walking in step alongside Robyn. Occasionally, his camera soars vertically overhead to chart the ever-changing terrain, from scrubland to bluffs to blinding white desert. The visual side of the film is frequently breathtaking; the music side, less so. Garth Stevenson's score contains too many irritatingly tinkly piano and snare drum sections that threaten to turn “Tracks” into a Lifetime movie, although he does rise to the occasion for the film's darker moments.
Whereas Davidson's actual journey was 99 percent solo, Curran chooses to highlight the interactions that punctuated her desert odyssey, in order to illuminate and contextualise a side of Australia most people will know nothing about. In one of the film's most compelling stretches, Davidson is guided through sacred land by an Aborigine named Eddy, and she also encounters farmers, tourists and journalists seeking out “the camel lady” after her walk makes headlines.
Wasikowska gets the balance of her performance exactly right. Still and reactive rather than ostentatious or emotional (apart from a tragic moment near the end), the actress conveys Davidson's fiercely private, misanthropic nature while never losing our sympathy or admiration. It's a model of restraint just like Curran's film, which eschews any showy spiritual awakenings or climactic crescendos - a far cry from the ramped-up version apparently planned for Julia Roberts (according to Davidson herself, that “gobsmackingly awful” script contained a dreaming initiation ceremony in which Aborigines carried Robyn naked around a fire). One imagines the author will concur that Curran, Wasikowska and the rest of “Tracks”' creative army have done her story proud with their modest but compelling approach.