TRACKS opens with a warning of cultural sensitivity for Aboriginal viewers that the film “may contain images and voices of deceased persons”. This statement sets the precedent for the whole story, that it’ll be dealing with real people and doing them justice from the off.
Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) lives her day-to-day simply as a means to achieve her dream: to trek across Australia with only her dog and a small team of camels essential for her survival for company. She works hard and often for free, trading her long days of toil for essential knowledge and the guarantee she will have everything she needs for her journey. Reluctantly, she accepts the sponsorship of a magazine and tolerates the occasional presence of a photographer (Adam Driver), but this is Robyn’s quest, and hers alone, and she will get through it the only way she knows how: the hard way.
Robyn Davidson is described through the course of the film by others as “an odd girl” and “the Camel Lady” and “at home nowhere” by herself. She’s a slippery one to pin down, almost impossible to psychoanalyse, but she’s a captivating presence nonetheless.
It’s so nice to hear Wasikowska use her own voice for once. She’s played plenty of Americans and Brits, but rarely gets to play someone with her natural dialect. I shudder at the thought of one of Hollywood’s darlings playing Robyn and putting on a bad Aussie accent (Julia Roberts was considered years ago) so I’m pleased we ended up with a native in the lead role, and she certainly seems to come of age with this particular turn. There’s some lovely subtleties to Wasikowska’s performance. You can plainly see the life leave Robyn’s eyes when she is forced to hang out with her friends one last time before she sets out on her mammoth trek, then witness the fire in her belly reignite as she begins her endurance test. As she is about to set off, her sister tells her “there’s no shame in turning back” and Wasikowska gives Robyn this wonderful facial expression, a weird, endearing and determined grimace that proclaims giving up just isn’t an option for her. Her whole life has been leading up to this moment, and she’ll see it through. She clearly wasn’t born to just sit still and make do.
From the off there’s a great contrast between Wasikowska and Driver’s characters – Robyn in serene and serious, confident and certain of what she wants and how she wants to achieve it, whereas Rick nervously cracks jokes, is awkward and out of place, and is always looking for answers, many of which Robyn is unwilling or unable to provide. She despairs at having a photographer accompany her (just look at the pure venom in her “smile” for the camera). But Rick is also a necessary evil, his magazine’s sponsorship is the reason she has the opportunity to fulfill her dream. Despite his support, you get the sense Robyn feels like Rick is stealing her journey of a lifetime, her one ultimate expression of individual spirituality, away from her. No wonder she tells him to f-off as he tries to take a picture of her in a sandstorm.
Rick’s voyeuristic drive, as a photographer, not only irritates Robyn, but puts her on the back foot as he feels compelled to take photos of Aboriginal “Secret Business”. She cannot cross sacred ground without the company of an “Old Fella”, which they are understandably reluctant to provide after her associate has acted so insensitively. But you get the impression that though this is a major inconvenience to her, Robyn is up for the challenge, and she almost seems put out when a very nice Old Fella agrees to escort her on the final leg of her journey. As friendly and fascinating as Mr Eddy (Roly Mintuma) is, it’s not truly her journey anymore when she has company.
The will-they-won’t they? question between Robyn and Rick does seem a little forced for the film (though admittedly I don’t know to what extent it happened in real life). You feel at first it might be at odds with everything we’ve learned about Robyn’s personality, at least until you realise it was just a one-night stand in the desert strictly on her terms (much to Rick’s disappointment). Though the film doesn’t quite lower itself to outright conventionality in the film romance department, we do get an unwise attempt at explaining the way Robyn is through the prism of symbolic childhood trauma that returns to her in dreams. It’s not badly done, it’s just been done so many times before.
The film contains one of my favourite lines of film dialogue of all time – when debating how to tell the decent, well-intentioned, but interfering Rick to take a hike, Robyn asks “How can you tell a nice person that you wish they’d crawl into a hole and die?”. It’s a really funny line, but it also serves to sum up Robyn’s attitude to most of the rest of the people on the planet, that she bears them no ill will, she even likes some of them, but she’d still just prefer they all left her to it.
The film is full of emotional highs and lows, joy and pathos. Perhaps the real dramatic potential of this amazing story is best reached in a scene where Robyn is mobbed by journalists in the wilderness and questions having ever started the journey, before finally admitting to Rick that she is “so alone”. The walls finally come crashing down, and she is laid bare for the first time, finally wondering whether she really can do what she’s never had any doubts she could do before.
Robyn’s journey seems possible through equal parts tenaciousness and luck. Her achievement was miraculous, a testament to her strength of body, mind, and soul, but we never really find out for certain why she decided to do what she did. Maybe she never knew. Maybe she simply doesn’t want to tell us. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Aside from the odd stumble, Tracks is a finely-tuned feelgood adventure with a clever and mature performance from Waskikowska. It serves as an appropriate and fitting tribute to its illusive subject and also works as a spiritually satisfying experience as a whole. SSP