Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Mia Wasikowska in Tracks
"Mandy Walker's cinematography is the window into the heroine's emotions."

In his Montauk, Swiss author Max Frisch asks the question - have you ever met two dogs who had so little to say to each other that they had to talk about a third dog?

John Curran's Tracks leads us deeply into a looking glass of humanity's poisonous everyday flaws through screenwriter Marion Nelson's passionate attentiveness.

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Based on Robyn Davidson's book, the film, with prodigious range of insight, chronicles her 1,700 mile journey across Australia in 1977 when she walked from the town of Alice Springs to the shores of the Indian Ocean in the company of three adult camels, a calf named Goliath and her beautiful black dog Diggity.

Curran superbly sets the tone pre-expedition in 1975 to explain in a few poignant scenes, the protagonist's motivation. The desert landscape, sparsely populated with mostly Aborigine settlements, is home to sacred sites no white woman is allowed to cross on her own. Robyn, a young woman played by a determined Mia Wasikowska, arrives in Alice Springs with her dog and suitcase. A truck with a group of laughing men drives by, pointing a gun right at her, as if ready to fire at the stranger. Her designated role is that of prey in this society and she refuses to play it. She was also sick, so we hear in her voice-over, of carrying around negativity, the "malaise of her generation, sex, and class".

Some of the early images, which we return to in flashbacks, show the legs of a young girl in a yellow dress, suitcase in hand, leaving what looks like her home. She could be Frankie in Carson McCullers' The Member Of The Wedding. Julie Harris as Frankie in Fred Zinnemann's film version, goes out into the world with her suitcase for only one frightening night on the town. The question of belonging remains paramount and finding a solution is urgent for both.

Whenever Robyn encounters couples in her quest to prepare for the journey and to learn how to handle camels, the wife is beaten or oppressed by the husband. One of these men, Kurt Posel, who agrees to give her a camel if she works for him unpaid for endless months at his ranch is played by Rainer Bock, who miraculously combines his roles in Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Christian Petzold's Dreileben: Beats Being Dead and Barbara, into an Outback brute able to compete in attention with the growling beasts. And how they growl. Yet, the choice between the camels and the humans as companions becomes more and more clear.

When a girlfriend from college visits Robyn before the departure in the roofless abandoned house she made her temporary home, Curran stages an invasion of the soul. The friend brought along a mob of friends, largely male, greasy haired, spurious intellectuals who smoke, and talk and talk, ["a camel is like a cow mixed with a giraffe"] while the women silently look at each other. Who wouldn't want to be alone with camels and a dog after that?

Australia is home to the largest feral camel population in the world, although they are not native species, we learn while we watch Robyn's second apprenticeship with Sallay Mahomet (John Flaus), an honest camel wrangler, who prepares her well.

Adam Driver plays photographer Rick Smolan, one specimen among the smarmy and pretentious guys during the obnoxious visit. "Rick knows a lot of magazine editors," and if he is allowed to drop in on her journey from time to time, National Geographic agrees to give her the money needed for the trip.

"If nothing goes wrong on one day, why should it go wrong the next?" is how Robyn fights her fears.

"Go home," she tells her dog Diggity after losing her compass and her way for a while - what happens next is a joyous and deep moment that I have not seen in a film. It is the most unvarnished and wonderful definition of home since Dorothy declared that there's no place like it in 1939.

A variation of Gertrude Stein's interpretation of identity: "I am I because my little dog knows me."

Mandy Walker's cinematography is the window into the heroine's emotions. The light during a swim Robyn takes in a water tower in the middle of the desert, with the wet dog running around it, barking with happiness, is as poignant as the shadowy grief of despair when civilisation fails her on a grand personal scale.

"Hope, jokes and dogs are given to us to make life bearable."

Her internal journey into the family past echoes the loneliness of crossing a continent. A discarded can of pesticide here, a few photos of something sacred and forbidden there. Who can indict a tourist for wanting to take pictures of an anti-social "camel lady"? Who can accuse a man talking for talking's sake about how the deli was closed and how much he likes lentils and how many contacts he has?

The blaming takes place with humor and a deeply felt conviction that some things are right and others are wrong, no matter how unfashionable that may sound. Mr. Eddie (Roly Mintuma), the Aborigine Elder who helps her across some sacred ground, talks just as much as photo-Rick, only we and Robyn do not understand what he is saying.

Curran ventures in with his symbolism. After the greatest heartbreak, a large snake crawls as a signifier over her body. Innocence lost is at the core with one slithering gesture.

Having a baby camel drink out of your cup, a water canister dropped off in the desert, human kindness over a game of scrabble, a friendly stranger washing your hair and dusty ears, Stardust Memories under the stars - Tracks convoys us to inspiring compassion.

"As with every journey, it's not what you carry with you - it's what you leave behind."

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2014
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Based on the true story of Robyn Davidson who in 1977 undertook an extraordinary solo trek across the harsh Australian outback.
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Read more Tracks reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray *****
Amber Wilkinson **1/2

Director: John Curran

Writer: Marion Nelson

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Emma Booth, Jessica Tovey, Rainer Bock, Melanie Zanetti, Robert Coleby, Lily Pearl

Year: 2013

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Australia

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