The desert trek in "Tracks" is as brutal as it is beautiful; the performance by Mia Wasikowska as raw as the reality. And the camels? If they don't steal your heart it must be stone-hinged.
Director John Curran, whose visual imprint is always artfully drawn in films such as "The Painted Veil," has somehow eclipsed himself in "Tracks."
FOR THE RECORD
Film review: A Sept. 19 Calendar review of the movie "Tracks," which is about a woman's journey across Australia's outback in 1977, said that Uluru is on the Indian Ocean. It is not. The review should have said that Uluru was one stop on her way to the Indian Ocean.
Perhaps he was moved by the solitude of Robyn Davidson's epic walk, crossing more than 1,700 miles of Australia's outback in 1977 to make her way to Uluru on the Indian Ocean. Marion Nelson, in her screenwriting debut, adopts a minimalist's approach in translating Davidson's story.
No doubt Curran and cinematographer Mandy Walker were inspired by Rick Smolan, whose photos of the "Camel lady" and her journey became one of National Geographic magazine's most popular issues. The film certainly reflects the haunting landscape in Smolan's shots.
Davidson spent two years in the training and acquiring of the camels she knew she would need as pack animals to survive. Then an additional nine months in the walking. Hints at why come in flashbacks to her childhood — her father's walkabouts, her mother's suicide. But they feel like a distraction. As you watch the film unfold, the why quickly becomes less important than the how.
The film is also about a place and a time, and the crew has captured it well in costume and production design, desert dirt and sweat. Rural Australia, rugged, misogynistic in its repression of women and its treatment of the country's native population of Aborigines, provides the story's framework. Echoes of the feminist movement and the general youth rebellion of the 1970s are woven in.
Wasikowska is always intriguing in the way she disappears within her characters, whether in a classic period piece like "Jane Eyre" or a fairy tale-like "Alice in Wonderland." But rarely has the Aussie actress seemed more sure-footed than she does in "Tracks."
As a sunburned Robyn begins to learn about camels from a ruthless taskmaster named Kurt (Rainer Bock), the rough world of those who live on the desert's edge takes hold. Wasikowska makes those crawl-before-you-walk scenes as hopeless and as grueling as they must have been for Davidson. Perhaps the blisters and the peeling skin are nothing more than movie magic, but they certainly seem real.
Though Kurt is a cheating brute, more often Robyn is met by the kindness of strangers. Three become instrumental in her journey: the Afghan camel wrangler Sallay (John Flaus), the Aborigine elder Mr. Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) and Rick (Adam Driver), the photographer who starts as an irritant and becomes a friend.
Driver, who is everywhere these days with new films coming out weekly, it seems, is a good opposite number to Wasikowska. All New York energy and fast patter filling in Robyn's long silences when they first meet, he gradually begins earning her acceptance, then her friendship, as he documents his reluctant subject at stops along the way.
But it is the sensitivity that Driver and Wasikowska capture between Rick and Robyn that stays with you. Many days into the trek, Robyn is so worn down by difficulties that range from windstorms to charging wild bull camels, she doesn't know whether she can go on. Wasikowska is masterful in getting her character just this side of a breaking point. The way Driver picks up that emotion, ever so tentative in reaching out to touch her shoulder, makes it clear that Rick is not sure whether the comfort of a human touch might destroy her.
Though Robyn's dog Diggity (Special Agent Gibbs) is her constant companion, even a captivating canine can't steal a scene from a camel. Of the four who made the trek with her — Bubs (Istan), Dookie (Morgan), Zelly (Mona) and her calf, baby Goliath (Mindie) — Dookie was the star of the book. Morgan takes on that role with aplomb in the film, doing the camel roar of displeasure so perfectly on cue you'd swear he studied the script.
But this is Wasikowska's film from the opening frame, curled up against a train window on her way to Alice Springs, unsure and untested, to the moment she wades into the Indian Ocean nearly three years later, a desert filled with experiences behind her.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes