The new film Tracks tells the true story of Robyn Davidson, a female adventurer who, accompanied by four camels and her faithful dog, trekked 1,700 miles across the deserts of western Australian in 1977. The film, directed by John Curran, was inspired by Davidson’s memoirs as well as National Geographic photos taken by Rick Smolan.
Davidson, who became known as The Camel Lady, is the very personification of a loner. Her character, like similar alienated (and alienating) screen heroines in cinematic history, yearns for solitude and to escape from mainstream society and the “real” world. In Tracks Davidson is portrayed as someone with so little need for human companionship or connection that she makes Greta Garbo look like a party girl. Early on in the film Davidson states her belief that, “There are new kinds of nomads, not people who are at home everywhere, but who are at home nowhere. I was one of them.” She’s the consummate outsider, regardless of her surroundings, she never feels at home. The only constant in her life seems to be her relationship with her dog. This attachment to her canine companion is also highlighted in several dream like flashback sequences which provide expository material regarding Davidson’s childhood.
One of the most notable aspects of Tracks is how much of the film is bathed in warm golden tones which characterize the glow of the Australian sun. The unforgiving natural landscape becomes a character unto itself. The desolate and barren desert milieu is where Davidson feels most at ease. She prefers the company of her camels and dog more than most of the human beings who happen to cross her path during her epic journey. She views her interactions with people like unwelcome intrusions. This is particularly true in a scene in which a passing motorcyclist stops by Davidson’s campsite one night while she is sleeping. Her response to his arrival is to simply roll over and ignore him.
As a film Tracks begins and ends with Mia Wasikowska who delivers a strong performance as Robyn Davidson. Wasikowska has previously appeared in films such as The Kids Are All Right (2010), Alice in Wonderland (2010) as well as Albert Nobbs (2011). The movie’s narrative is centered squarely on the lead character’s shoulders as it focuses on the rigorous challenges she must overcome during the course of her nine month voyage.
The problem with Tracks, however, is that the reason why Davidson undertakes her grandiose journey is never made clear and therefore the entire adventure seems empty and pointless. The film hinges on viewers rooting for Davidson and empathizing with her physical and emotional struggles to complete her goal and yet we’re never really sure why the arduous cross country trek is so important to her. Although she makes reference to her father’s past travels in the desert as well as her belief that “an ordinary person is capable of anything” nothing really explains Davidson’s obsessive determination to make such a dangerous and painful undertaking.
At times throughout Tracks it seems as if Davidson might even want to die in the desert. At one point in the film when she’s planning a portion of the trip in which she’ll be walking for extended periods without adequate water resources her photographer/friend Smolan bluntly inquires, “You don’t want to die out there…do you?” With this theme in mind several times in Tracks Davidson is portrayed as an almost Christ-like figure as she’s depicted walking through the desert nearly naked with her skin burnt, blistered, and peeling off.
Although again and again throughout the film Davidson rebels against the fame she’s achieved due to the media coverage of her journey by shunning curious tourists and reporters alike, it’s interesting to note that without Smolan’s photos, in particular, very few people would’ve known about her trip and perhaps her achievement would never have been a matter of public record. During the film’s end credits the actual photos from National Geographic taken by Rick Smolan (played in the film by Adam Driver) of the real Robyn Davidson are shown. The inclusion of this archival material serves to afford Tracks with an added note of authenticity.
Tracks gives film goers a portrait of a strong independent woman whose dead set on achieving her goals and doesn’t let anything or anyone stop her. Yet in the end Davidson’s success seems like a hollow victory considering the extreme physical and emotional toll it’s taken on her and her animal companions. At the film’s conclusion viewers are left not only with a sense of sadness rather than satisfaction but also the lingering question as to why the cross country trek was so important in the first place.
Tracks opens June 6 in Montreal.