Tracks Review

"Some nomads are at home everywhere. Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those." - Robyn Davidson, quoted at the start of the film.

Australia, 1975. Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Alice Springs, with plans to walk across the desert to the Indian Ocean, a distance of 1700 miles and a journey of some nine months...

Tracks is based on a true story. After learning to train feral camels, and acquiring three of them (which became four as one of them was pregnant) Davidson completed her journey in 1977. She had to have sponsorship from National Geographic to make the expedition viable, which resulted in having a photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), accompany her for part of the way. The article appeared in 1978 and, two years later, Davidson wrote a book about her trek, also called Tracks, a bestseller in Australia especially and often featuring on school syllabuses. There had been attempts to film Tracks before, with Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman set to play Robyn at various times. American-born, Australian-based director John Curran had made three films in the USA (We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil and Stone as well as writing the script for The Killer Inside Me, which was directed by Michael Winterbottom) and had a yearning to make a film in Australia, on an Australian subject, for the first time since his 1998 feature debut Praise.

You can see why this project appealed to the likes of Roberts and Kidman and no doubt other women, given that this is a leading role for a twentysomething actress (Davidson was twenty-seven when she completed her journey; Wasikowska was twenty-three at the time of filming), on screen pretty much throughout, and on her own for large parts of it, other than four camels and a dog and unending vistas of desert. Marion Nelson's script doesn't try to "explain" Robyn, though we have some flashbacks to childhood and her relationship to her father and her absent mother which drop hints. It'd clear that Davidson likely couldn't explain herself either, beyond the quote at the head of this review. She also stands against she sees as the overwhelming negativity of her generation. A desert journey like this is an introvert's paradise writ very large, and it's obvious that Robyn is much closer to the animals in her life, particularly her dog Diggety, than any other humans. One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film is when Robyn suffers an animal loss. Rick comes across as a necessary evil for Robyn, as without the sponsorship and a photographer she would not have been able to make this journey. While they do sleep together, it seems perfunctory: they're not close in that sense, but theirs becomes a relationship of mutual respect. (In real life, Davidson and Smolan remain firm friends.) All this is in Mia Wasikowska's performance, the best work of hers I've seen in an already impressive filmography. She's not especially physically imposing (Wasikowska is 5'4") but you can sense her single-minded determination to see this through, no matter what the risk and hardship. Curran has form in getting strong performances out of his female leads (watch Praise and ask yourself why Sacha Horler isn't better known than she is) and this film is no exception. Adam Driver is fine in a role which is intentionally something of a spare part. Supporting roles, both white and indigenous, are well cast. Emma Booth turns up briefly as Robyn's sister. The pace is a little measured, but it becomes compelling if you adjust to it.

While Curran does a fine job, the star turn among the crew is Mandy Walker for her cinematography. Shot on film (35mm anamorphic), Tracks is a stunning looking film, with the landscape fully justifying its place as a lead character along with the humans and animals in it. Walker has done impressive work throughout her career, but this is world class.

Tracks premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Nick Chen's review for this site from that year's London Film Festival is here. It had a UK cinema release in April 2014, which is when I first saw it. At the time of writing, Tracks is up for four AACTA Awards, due to be given out in Sydney on 29 January 2015: Best Film, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and for Mariot Kerr for Best Costume Design.

Any Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders reading this might wish to take note of the caption at the start of the film, that it may contain the images and voices of deceased persons.


The Disc

Tracks is released on Blu-ray by Entertainment One. The disc begins with trailers for four of their other releases: Mr. Turner, What If (which also features Adam Driver), Jimmy's Hall and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. There is also a DVD edition, and affiliate links for it can be found here.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1. As I mention above, Tracks was shot in 35mm with anamorphic lenses, and the results speak for themselves. (As Curran says in his interview, it's increasingly difficult to be able to shoot on film, and considerable pressure to make films digitally.) The colours of the desert, mostly burned oranges and reds, come across very well, as do skintones and solid blacks. Grain appears natural. While I saw this film in the cinema as a DCP rather than from a 35mm print (apparently the UK theatrical release was all-DCP) this does looks much as I remember from that showing.

The soundtrack is available in both DTS-HD MA 5.1 and DTS-HD MA 2.0. The latter is an odd inclusion, given that the former makes it redundant. (A LPCM track might have been more expected.) There's not a lot of difference between the two, with the surrounds on the former largely being used for Garth Stevenson's music score and ambience. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.

Other than the trailers mentioned above, the extras on this disc comprise interviews, separately accessible or with a Play All option (total 71:26). These are in the usual EPK format with a text question on screen followed by video of the answer. Inevitably many of these are little more than soundbites, but there is useful information to be had here, some of which I've drawn on for this review. It's also good to hear from crewmembers you don't normally see featured in disc extras like these. The interviews are with Mia Wasikowska (8:46), Adam Driver (3:31), Rainer Bock, who plays the role of Kurt, (2:26), Aboriginal actor Rolley Mintuma, who plays Mr. Eddy (2:47 – he appears with his wife Pixie Brown and speaks in his native language, with English subtitles), John Curran (13:54), producer Emile Sherman (11:14), Robyn Davidson (12:26), production designer Melinda Doring (2:18), Mariot Kerr (2:28), makeup artist Zeljka Stanin (1:17), Rick Smolan (6:28) and head cameleer Andrew Harper (3:46)

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