Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 12, 2013 as part of our TIFF 2013 coverage.
Robyn Davidson tells it plain – “I just want to be by myself” – but the budding nomad’s idea of solitary experience is an extreme one. Based on the true-life tale of Australian native Davidson, Tracks stars Mia Wasikowska as Davidson, who embarked on an extraordinary journey in 1977 that took her from Alice Springs (in the center of the continent) west to the Indian Ocean. On foot. It is a two thousand mile journey that, at best, can take six months. For someone who wants to be alone, it’s a hell of a way to do it.
Robyn doesn’t do so well with people – at one point, she and her beloved dog Diggity literally hide behind her squatted home in an attempt to avoid contact with a pack of Robyn’s friends that she actually seems to like – so it’s not surprising that even though her trip across the desert is done with express purpose of being alone, Robyn eventually discovers that her desire to be solitary isn’t the safest thing for her (or, honestly, anyone).
A meditative and slow journey, the film takes us from Robyn’s earliest preparations (in need of camels to haul her gear, she spends a fair amount of time trying to procure and train them) and straight through her journey across some of the harshest country in the world. Along the way, Robyn and her animals face numerous dangers (of course, this is a personal journey story, so many of those challenges are emotional and psychological, but plenty of them are also flesh and blood), but the end result is a richly satisfying story that is also a visual delight.
Every scene of Tracks centers on Robyn, and Wasikowska responds to the challenges of the role with a wonderful amount of grace and restraint. Her Robyn is appropriately strong, willful, confused, and brave, and Wasikowska fleshes her out as a real human being, not some over the top cinematic caricature of a woman on the edge (and on the verge). It’s some of her very best work yet, and her performance continually elevates the film to still higher levels. Adam Driver’s supporting role as photographer Rick Smolan (an acquaintance of Robyn’s who encourages her to seek out sponsorship from “National Geographic” and ultimately becomes the assigned photographer for the piece) is familiar territory for the actor, but he adds some very necessary energy and levity at opportune moments.
Director John Curran knows his way around a drama – his previous works include films like We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil – but he too tones it down when it comes to Tracks. The Curran and Wasikowska pairing is a strong one, and Tracks possesses a keen focus that reflects the success of their creative match.
However, the script, penned by first-time scribe Marion Nelson and adapted from Davidson’s memoir of the same name, isn’t without its hitches. While Nelson wisely spends time leading up to Robyn’s trek through the desert with time spent on her preparations in Alice Springs (no, Tracks is not a two-hour film about one really long walk), the first act of the film is choppy and punctuated by an uninspired voiceover by Wasikowska that delivers information and emotion in increasingly boring fashion. The film picks up coherence in its middle act, even as the action slowly stalls out, but everything comes together quite beautifully in the film’s final forty or so minutes. A few liberties have been taken with the narrative of the film – for instance, Davidson actually insisted that Smolan be her photographer on the trip, and he only met her three times during her journey – but they are small changes that don’t distract too much from the aims and tones of the film versus the real life story.
Scripting and narrative quibbles aside, Tracks is never anything less than intensely human and, quite often, deeply moving. The ultimate message of the film – hey, camel lady, you need people, too – is an obvious one, but thanks to Wasikowska’s beautifully crafted performance and plenty of stunning aural (the score is top notch) and visual treats to go around, it rarely feels heavy-handed or over-the-top. Tracks is a true unexpected pleasure, its own satisfying journey.
The Upside: A restrained and well-tuned performance from Wasikowska; trademark levity from Driver that works to tremendous effect; beautiful scenery; stellar score; a richly rewarding final act; a baby camel named Goliath.
The Downside: Often unnecessary voiceover work; a weakly written first half; occasionally drags in its middle act.
On the Side: The development process for a Tracks movie has been, well, a long journey. Years in the making, big name actresses like Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman were previously attached and, as the film’s IMDb page notes, development on this adaption started before Wasikowska was even born.