In 1977, a young woman named Robyn Davidson
decided to walk across the Australian desert, starting from Alice Springs and ending at the Indian ocean, crossing 2,700 kilometers with her dog, Diggity, and four camels Dookie, Bub, Zeleika, and Goliath. Davidson’s journey was sponsored by National Geographic
When the article, (that Davidson wrote herself), complete with photographs taken by her friend and occasional lover Rick Smolan, was published a year later, it garnered huge public interest, so much so that Davidson went on to write a book based on her nine-month journey.
Tracks, the film version, directed by John Curran and starring the already great Mia Wasikowska as Davidson, was a difficult film to make. Any film that chronicles a journey is tricky, especially if the journey is one that is successful.It is hard to create drama out of a story where a woman walks from point A to point B, albeit through the desert and with camels. Rick Smolan’s photographs are indelible because he is documenting reality. Curran’s film on the other hand struggles with the burden of having to create conflict in an otherwise fairly straightforward story.
Yet, I found Tracks strangely compelling. One of the reasons is, of course, Wasikowska’s uncanny ability to portray Davidson’s inner life and fierce determination without having to resort to words. There is also the stunning and sometimes grim landscape of the Australian desert that plays an equal part as a character in the film, an unforgiving landscape that says you must either “do or die”.
While we never quite understand why Davidson set off on her journey - Curran explains slightly clumsily with dreamy flashbacks to her childhood, with her golden retriever and a tragedy seen through the eyes of a child - it is not quite enough to understand the impetus behind such a potentially fatal journey.
Davidson in real life, and as played by Wasikowska, therefore, remains a bit of an enigma. She loves her animals and her solitude passionately, and yet her life after her epic journey involves hobnobbing with the very famous, including a period where she lived with Doris Lessing, became friends with Bruce Chatwin, and had an affair with Salman Rushdie.
It is a bit difficult to elide the surly Davidson from the film with the honey haired beauty who emanates warmth in Smolan’s photographs. For those who already know her story, it will require a bit of detective work trying to find where reality and a filmmaker’s license diverge for the sake of cinematic poetry.
Tracks is riveting in its depiction of an unusual woman who pushes herself beyond the norm. I do not think you will regret the time you spent on it.