Film: Tracks
Directed by: John Curran
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver

In introducing an audience with Robyn Davidson at the National Museum of Australia in 2007, research fellow Mike Smith said, “We often see deserts as a place for an inner journey, and this trip had all the hallmarks: a woman alone in the desert, camels, encounters with Aboriginal people. It picked up on perhaps the idea that two-thirds of the continent is reserved for mystical experiences.” It’s a quote that’s more than apt in summing up Tracks, the spirited and stirring adaptation of Davidson’s book about her experiences in traversing the Australian desert in 1977. Davidson, then 27, completed a six-month journey of some 27,000 kilometres to the Indian Ocean with just her dog Diggity and four camels for company. The trip was documented in photographs by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan and later by Davidson herself in her memoir, here adapted as an ode to adventure and discoveries and a sheer conviction not often seen onscreen – and not often permitted to flourish in women.

Davidson, played by Mia Wasikowska, works on two camel stations in Alice Springs for several months before embarking on her quest. Smolan (Adam Driver)’s presence is a trade off with NatGeo, who provide $4,000 as partial funding towards her trip. While his presence was clearly exasperating for her, in many ways it’s fortunate the trek was so well-documented as it almost has to be seen to be believed. Epic journeys, be they of self-discovery or otherwise, aren’t uncommon in film but there is something quite unique about Davidson’s trek across Australia. It never seems arduous, despite the rigours it inflicts upon her and her animals. She’s almost entirely content in her solitude, relishing this sun-scorched haven and deliberately seeking to avoid the attention and interference news of her trek attracts. There is a sense that she may be slightly mad, if only because assurance of this kind is so rare in someone of her age, and it’s unusual to see someone embark on such an undertaking without feeling the need to justify it in any way. But this isn’t an attempt by a young woman to find herself. On the contrary, it’s the story of one who knows herself very well, and who seeks not an escape from reality but an opportunity to live and feel more completely within it.

It’s telling that when Davidson does have a low moment – and there are a couple – the disruption tends not to stem from her surrounds but actually impacts upon it. Her lowered guard seems to uproot the stillness of the desert, as flashbacks to childhood experiences of loss and grief billow out of the night. Discordant music plays when she’s around other people and she withdraws into herself, struggling to evince interest in companionship and social interactions. When she takes a rest stop at a farm en route across the desert, she looks upon the family’s photographs and memorabilia and seems almost perplexed, the togetherness and unity at odds with the upheaval she remembers from her youth. Every tourist she meets is crass and intrusive whereas the desert, which should seem intimidating in all its forbidding vastness, provides a silent and rousing sanctuary.

As backdrop to Davidson’s quest, the desert scenery in Tracks is breathtaking. It’s all but a character in its own right, a huge wordless companion yet filled with hidden whispers. The emptiness is its key appeal – there is a sense of infinite possibility across this rolling expanse, all magic and wonder and a mysticism held in check by the oppressive heat of the sun. Davidson separates herself from other tourists, closed off in their air-conditioned vehicles from the very environment they seek to explore, and discovers a kind of belonging in being so immersed in her surroundings. Her interaction with vanishing ways of life is also illuminating. Smolan at one stage photographs Aboriginal peoples during a ceremony, a forbidden practice which means they dismiss Davidson’s request for a guide through certain sacred territories. The callousness with which they’re treated highlights historical (and ongoing) ills but also underlines the unthinking, unfeeling manner of the society she wishes to avoid. Her peers are too preoccupied with documenting an experience in photographs and on film to really engage with their surroundings, and while she in her own way is just another encroaching outsider there’s a respect and understanding in her behaviour that’s markedly apart from almost everyone else in the film.

Wasikowska is outstanding in the lead role, carrying the film almost entirely by herself, and both she and Driver bring pathos and believability to their characters’ sometime relationship. Davidson never seems to completely like Smolan and certainly doesn’t depend on him, but she finds some degree of comfort in his sporadic presence and maybe even some brief sense of unity against the outside world. She is a compelling central character, remote as the land but human and vulnerable, and alluring in her persistence and determination. This is a story gentle and enthralling, dogged and aimless, but entirely captivating – and, as a glimpse into the heart and spirit of a young woman, a tale both necessary and profound.


Review written by Grace Duffy

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