Mirroring the arduous journey undertaken by Robyn Davidson in 1977, her 1980 book Tracks, which has stagnated in developmental hell for the past thirty years, has finally arrived in 2013 starring Mia Wasikowska as the central heroine. The book is an enlarged version of the popular article Davidson wrote for National Geographic which described the tortuous 1700 mile expedition she embarked upon from Alice Springs in the centre of Australia to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean on its western side. The article was accompanied pictorially by the work of photographer Rick Smolan, played by upcoming star Adam Driver, who appears perhaps too often in a film about a solo traveller, a film which aims to depict the gruelling nine month trek of its central heroine by camel.
The film sets up a number of tensions in order to secure both suspense and plot: laconic Robyn versus garrulous Rick, her desire for solitude disturbed by the demands of journalism and finally, what should feature as the most important narrative tension on offer in the film, the unaccompanied traveller battling against the harsh climate of the Australian outback. However, in a film which stresses the difficulty of the journey Robyn is about to embark upon in its opening scenes – every character she encounters patronisingly warns her that her dream is not possible – minus a few moments towards the end, we rarely see Robyn encounter any hardship whatsoever. Indeed, she never seems to have any problems with the sheer volume of dangerous creatures that live in the outback or even the scorching heat of the Australian sun. Robyn rarely sweats or gets burnt, the latter puzzling when one remembers how often Mia Wasikowska’s body is on display.
Tracks additionally fails to investigate the duration of her trip, instead offering what is best described as a prolonged montage sequence. As Curran seems afraid of extended shots of both Robyn and the environment which encompasses her, in addition to his fear of narrative silences, we never stay with Robyn long enough to truly understand her solitude and the difficulty of such a journey. Instead, Curran punctuates the narrative with the appearance of Rick, whose truck every so often materialises in the outback. His purpose is to take the pictures demanded by National Geographic magazine and to offer some entertainment for the audience. While his periodic arrivals interrupt the isolated moments which should be explored in more depth by Curran, they do offer quite an interesting point which figures as the central meaning on offer in the film – the second tension I have outline above, her desire for solitude disturbed by the demands of journalism.
From the start, Robyn encounters a problem: the only way she can embark on her journey is with outside support – she needs money to buy both the camels and supplies – but her desire for self-sufficiency and to be isolated with nature is corrupted by such a requirement. The journey figures as a mere fantasy before she capitalises on Rick’s suggestion, who she intriguingly meets before he is hired to photograph her, to write to National Geographic for funding. An early scene shows Robyn excitedly receive the money from the magazine, oblivious to the significance of such a deal. Instead of photographing her realistically in action, Rick requires Robyn to pose aboard one of her camels (she is accompanied by four and her dog Diggity), altering her positions and clothing in order to achieve the perfect shot. While Robyn is understandably perturbed by this, later sequences which depict a run in with tourists and a gang of journalists leave her exasperated. The film demonstrates how journalism created and destroyed her expedition. The idea for such an undertaking arose out of introverted Robyn’s need for solitude and isolation, to travel by natural means in a country populated by the jeep, but this solitude and isolation is denied by the means which nearly made it possible.
While this aspect is investigated in detail by Curran, Tracks avoids any real confrontation with other pressing issues, such as the relationship with the Aborigines she encounters throughout her journey. As Curran has decided to not emphasise the duration and difficulty of her expedition, this could function as a subordinate but somewhat interesting replacement. Instead, the nature versus journalism tension is played out again with Rick surreptitiously photographing a sacred ceremony which causes the Aborigines much frustration while the mutterings of Eddie, a native who accompanies her through sacred country, are played for humour. Despite the failings of the film, both Wasikowska and Driver are notable in their roles; indeed it is their tenuous relationship that buoys Tracks. Additionally, one must admit that we are offered some superb shots of the Australian landscape, however, these moments of success are held for too short a period, much like the other points of significance in Curran’s film.