Mia Wasikowska. Picture: Supplied

Film
Tracks (M) 3.5 stars
Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver
DIRECTOR JOHN CURRAN
REVIEW PIER LEACH

If ever there was a long, sweaty route to the beach, Robyn Davidson took it when she set out to walk from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in 1977, a 2700km trek across some of the most inhospitable territory on the planet.

It was an extraordinary, nutty goal for a solo young woman - or anyone for that matter. But it's one that, when asked, the then 27-year-old Davidson would happily and rather evasively chalk up to "Why not?"

The film, directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil, We Don't Live Here Anymore) and based on Davidson's book of the same name, takes a similarly esoteric approach.

It opts not so much to delve into her state of mind and what drove her - which I'm sure comes through more strongly in the book - but to chart the arduous journey in all its harshness, isolation and breathtaking visual splendour.

For so many of us who live on the more temperate coastal perimeter, its window into the interior is a stunning venture. Filmed by Mandy Walker (Lantana, Australia), it captures a desolate, wildly beautiful heartland.

The always interesting Mia Wasikowska plays Davidson with an intriguing grace and physical commitment. It is just the kind of strong, curious, solitary character Wasikowska (Jane Eyre, Alice in Wonderland, Stoker) seems to be developing an affinity for - even if the role is somewhat impenetrable in its translation to the screen, relying on occasional flashbacks to troubling moments in Davidson's youth to suggest her need for escape.

Voiceover narration provides a bare-bones backstory, as adapted by Marion Nelson, but the film is far more focused on Davidson's challenges in overcoming frequent naysayers, learning how to wrangle camels, and her revealing encounters with the people who call the vast Western Desert home.

For such a minimalist, off-hand explanation of her motives in the film, Davidson certainly planned well - the diligence of her preparation taking up a good part of the film's first section.

It starts when Davidson and her loyal dog Diggity move to Alice Springs in the mid-70s, where she works in a bar before learning the ropes on a camel farm so she would know how to deal with her future companions - four of whom accompanied her on her trip and earned her the enduring sobriquet the Camel Lady.

Up against the kind of tough outback folk who either laughed at her or thought she was crazy, part of the film's innate fascination is observing her encounters with the locals along the way - ones that ranged from aggressive or dismissive to kindly and unique.

One particularly special encounter, captured by Curran with a great deal of insight and humour, is with the Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma). He agreed to accompany Davidson across sacred territory she would otherwise have had to circumnavigate and their communication, despite the language hurdle, is instinctive and often delightful.

National Geographic magazine sponsored Davidson's trip, sending US photographer Rick Smolan (played by Girls' Adam Driver) to meet her at various points along the way, and published the 1978 article that later provided the springboard for her bestselling book.

Curran plays their encounters for the love interest potential and it's charming enough but Tracks works mostly as an epic account of sheer physical accomplishment. The story speaks volumes about strength, determination and Davidson's rare and fearless spirit of adventure.

Like the journey it charts, it feels long and relentless at times. But it's an inspiring and unique female Australian story, worth seeing on that basis alone.

The West Australian

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