I wasn’t the only woman who, as the lights went up after our Film Society screening of this Australian film, said, “I want to do something like that!” There is much to be said about this beautiful and lyrical film but the real heart of it, at least for me, was a woman doggedly following a dream, despite the discomfort and disapprobation of all those around her.
I sort of knew Robyn Davidson’s story. I suspect that the National Geographic article that we see the creation of in Tracks appeared during the few years I had a subscription in the late 70s. At 13, I’m sure the immensity of Davidson’s endeavour, particularly in the context of the sexism and racism in Australia at the time, would have been invisible to me. I had forgotten most of the detail, though, and, having never read the book this is based on, it was a revelation to see her story play out.
Robyn Davidson is a woman in her twenties who arrives in Alice Springs in the late 70s with nothing much but a desire to strike out on her own. We can see she is not afraid of hardship and hard work, camping out, working for nothing at a camel farm for just a handshake promise to be given three wild camels. She wants to walk from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, a journey of around 1700 miles through some of the most inhospitable country in Australia. We see glimpses of her past which gives us some insight into why she is there, why she avoids social contact and meaningful engagement with other people, even those closest to her. When she sets out on her trek with her camels and dog, she is forced to compromise by accepting much needed sponsorship from National Geographic in return for the unwanted occasional company of photographer Rick Smolan.
What I loved about this film was the slow pace that allowed us to experience the glorious landscape of Australia and see the rare people who call those isolated regions of Australia home. Like Robyn, we don’t really engage with these people or understand why they are there, we just see and hear and get a sense of their connection to the land. Mister Eddy is a highlight, as is the couple we see near the end, so nonchalant and unfazed by a woman and four camels appearing out of the heat haze. All of these people seem authentic and open to the goodness of human nature, unlike any urban people who cross Robyn’s path. They are crass, prejudiced and ignorant of what we are shown is important – honest human connection, respect for the journey of the individual, the beauty and harshness of our country.
I said slow pace but the film never dragged for me and it never felt lacking in substance. There are several moments of genuine drama, felt all the more because we have built some understanding of Davidson and what her weaknesses are. The cinematography is beautiful without being obtrusive, the only heavy-handed note for me was the music which sometimes too obviously underscored the emotions we were supposed to be feeling. I know the film glossed over aspects of the book that would have made us less sympathetic toward Davidson, a Hollywood-ism that perhaps would have irked some but passed me by.
I couldn’t help thinking of The Martian when I watched this film. They couldn’t be two more different films really, in style and sensibility, but they both dealt with a person isolated in inhospitable terrain, dealing with their mortality and the difficulties of maintaining equanimity and emotional stability when so thoroughly alone. Where The Martian lost its way was in compromising our immersion in the experience of the lone scientist, so we rarely felt his ordeal or understood his endeavour. Dramatic events seemed contrived to add suspense and any difficulty was solved with a handy bit of ‘science’. Tracks was the antithesis of this. Not a single MacGyver moment.
Bechdel test – pass