John Curran’s adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s “Tracks” attempts something very difficult—to capture the inner emotional journey of the author as it visually portrays the physical demands of her 1977 1700-mile solo trek across Australia. That it succeeds to a considerable degree is a testament not merely to Curran’s skill and the dexterity with which screenwriter Marion Nelson has extracted material from the book, but to Mia Wasikowska’s unflinching dedication in the lead role.
As structured by Nelson and Curran, the film is basically a chronological portrayal of Davidson’s remarkable venture, beginning with her arrival in the dusty outback town of Alice Springs and her dealings with the camel wranglers from whom she learns the techniques she’ll need to control her four humped companions, whom she dubs Dookie, Zelly, Bub and Goliath. But an even more important member of her crew is her dog Diggity, a rambunctious canine that will not only give her the affection she needs but, in one instance, literally save her life.
Davidson will actually have other associates along the way. One is photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), for whom she initially has little use but has to accept as an occasional interloper, since his periodic interventions to photograph the stages of her walk is a condition of the sponsorship by National Geographic on which the journey depends. In time, his genuine concern for her will morph into something romantic. Another companion, for part of the journey, is an Aborigine elder, Mr. Eddy (Rolley Mintuma), who volunteers to join her so that she can take a shorter route by passing through sacred territory. She’ll also make stops along the way with a few residents of the remote desert locales, including Aborigine tribesmen, as well as be compelled to put up with the tourists and reporters who once in a while happen upon the oddball traveler the outside world has come to refer to as “the camel lady.” And despite the setbacks she encounters, it will spoil nothing to reveal that Davidson ultimately reaches her destination, the Indian Ocean; after all, there probably would have been no National Geographic article, let alone a book, if she’d failed to do.
Curran and Wasikowska excel in the visual depiction of Davidson’s trek, the director and cinematographer Mandy Walker capturing the beautiful desolation of the landscape she traverses while the actress spares nothing in showing the toll it takes, which make the moments she shares with Driver, Mintuma and others like Edwin Hodgeman and Carol Burns (as the Wards, in whose remote house she’s warmly welcomed) all the more satisfying. Driver also excels as the ambitious but ultimately caring Smolan—one has to give him special credit for completing his scenes even when attacked by what seem like some formidable flies—and Mintuma proves an effortless scene-stealer as the elderly Mr. Eddy. But the animals provide formidable competition in that department. The four camels—the actual animals’ names are Morgan, Mona, Istan and Mindie—are quite charismatic enough, but even they are cast into the shade (if they can find any) by Special Agent Gibbs, the dog that plays Diggity (with an assist from “stunt double” Ziva). Wasikowska’s interaction with them is as important, if not more so, than her connections to other humans, because although she emphasizes her love of solitude, she’s never really alone as long as they’re around.
If “Tracks” is extremely effective in depicting Davidson’s physical journey, however, it’s only slightly less so in suggesting her interior one. Curran, Nelson and Wasikowska (along with Lily Pearl, who plays Robyn as a child) make good use of poetic flashbacks and narrative voiceover to hint at Davidson’s past and the part it plays in driving her to undertake, and complete, her arduous trek. But inevitably as a person she remains somewhat opaque—anyone who simply responds, when asked why she’d attempt such a foolhardy walk, “Why not?” is not easy to understand—although Wasikowska, while hardly a physically imposing presence, manages to suggest the fiercely independent spirit that explained not only why Davidson determined to do the apparently impossible, but actually managed to succeed at it.
The same sort of persistence can be ascribed to Curran. Shooting “Tracks” must have been a daunting task, but he’s seen it through with good taste and a degree of elegance, making the picture accessible and yet not softening it into a cheesy tale of uplift and nobility. Underlying all the enthralling visuals—modeled after Smolan’s own photographs—a good deal of the harshness of Davidson’s experience remains. And Wasikowska likewise manages to convey much of her unusual psyche. Despite its leisurely pace, the film proves a gripping journey both across Australia and into the heart of its heroine.