It’s difficult to convey the dreamy, hypnotic journey the Australian film “Tracks” gifts to its viewer. You completely lose track of time while drinking in the astonishing and rugged grandeur of the Outback in its most elemental form.
This is not a viewing experience like any movie I can think of but rather a journey you feel yourself on where moment to moment you can expect anything — or nothing.
While this is an iconic story in its native land, and certainly a best-selling book some thirty-odd years ago, “Tracks” hits movie screens as a fresh, timeless story.
The bare-bones are these: In 1975 a 25-year-old woman, Robyn Davidson, arrived in the remote town of Alice Springs in central Australia. The city-bred woman’s plan was to travel across the harsh desert to the Indian Ocean on the west coast, a journey of about 1,700 miles.
If she was trying to prove a point, she apparently forgot what it was. Yes, this took place during an earlier wave feminism and female empowerment. But Robyn was no activist and, in fact, mostly relished the idea of being all by herself in the unforgiving, harsh landscape. She simply wanted to take this journey.
She worked for two years to learn how to train and handle wild camels which roam in that part of the world. Through her work she eventually earned the three camels she needed for her travels — a fourth got added when one camel gave birth.
Then she met a photographer, Rick Smolan, through whom she secured financing from National Geographic with the proviso, only reluctantly agreed to, that he would meet up with her from time to time during her travels to photograph her adventures for the magazine.
The subsequent publication of her trip memoir and Smolan’s photos was a sensation in 1978 and expanded into a book, “Tracks,” published in 1980. Producers have wanted to make a film version ever since — one was to star Julia Roberts — but Davidson always wanted an Australian film and got her wish with this film written by Marion Nelson and directed by John Curran (“The Painted Veil,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”).
Most pivotally, it stars Australia’s newest star, Mia Wasikowska, in a performance that is matter-of-fact but nonetheless stunning. You sense in her Robyn the stubborn patience and determination to make the journey even in the early Alice Springs scenes portraying her efforts to understand the camels so necessary for the long walk.
You also sense her fervent desire for aloneness. As she leads her unreliable camels and faithful black Labrador, Diggity, through the craggy terrain, you understand she is at one with the landscape even as it chars and reddens her skin, throws heat and dust in her face and disorients her.
Appearances by Rick (Adam Driver) mostly annoy Robyn. Driver makes the photog quirkily over-earnest and carelessly indifferent to the sensibilities of Aborigines so you share her irritation. (And yet his photographs sold the story in the end.)
As the only human she sees for long stretches, an emotional connection slowly forms between these distinctly disparate individuals and continues to grow. His concern for her is real and she learns to appreciate it.
Nelson can’t get you inside her heroine’s head so she solves this predicament initially through voiceovers and later flashbacks to childhood that would naturally drift into her consciousness during the long trek.
Yet the writer resists the temptation to “explain” motivation. Rather you get hints of internal obstacles and elements from her past but nothing that screams out at you. It’s a subtle character study and a most satisfying one.
In contrast to her conflicted relationship with the photographer, Robyn accepts the uncomplicated accompaniment of Mr. Eddie (Rolley Mintuma), an Aboriginal elder who guides her through a stretch of country with sacred sites that should only be transversed with a native.
The man points out places and regals her with stories in a language she understands not one word of. He does occasionally express himself in halting English but that’s about it. It’s a funny and winning passage.
Thankfully the filmmakers make no attempt to add melodrama or characters. Indeed the occasional tourists or news people encountered get treated as rude interruptions to the glories of the journey. This in contrast to an aging Outback white couple that takes her into their humble house for tea.
Eventually, Robyn and Rick devise a way to avoid reporters and photographers at journey’s end. They are now, at long last, co-conspirators.
The fine cinematographer Mandy Walker, whose imagery greatly enhanced Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” takes a cue from Smolan’s astonishing work to record without any fuss or unnecessary flair a remote, primeval landscape of spectacular wonder. This is, of course, back in a day where going off the grid was actually a doable thing.
You’re on the ground with Robyn much of the time but Walker and Curran do let you glide (via aerial shots) from time to time over the parched flatlands and abrupt outgrowths. Campfires in dark nights let the world shrink to a company of one human and five animals.
“Tracks” is a humbling and enthralling experience as any you’ll experience in a cinema. As an on-screen quote from Davidson tells it: “Camel journeys do not begin or end, they merely change form.”
Opens: September 19, 2014 L.A., New York (The Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: Screen Australia presents in association with South Australia Film Corp., Adelaide Film Festival, Screen NSW and Deluxe a See-Saw Films production
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Rainer Bock, Rolley Mintuma, John Flaus, Robert Coleby
Production company: See-Saw Films
Director: John Curran
Screenwriter: Marion Nelson
Based on the book by: Robyn Davidson
Producers: Emile Sherman, Iain Canning
Executive producers: Andrew Mackie, Richard Payten, Xavier Marchand
Director of photography: Mandy Walker
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Music: Garth Stevenson
Costume designer: Mariot Kerr
Editor: Alexandre de Franceschi
PG-13 rating, 102 minutes.