Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: TRACKS: What Without Why

I remember this story from the time and how it felt, in however slight a way, that things were changing in the world. There was a little in the media about it but it didn't really come alive for me until the edition of National Geographic landed at the door of my subscriber family home. What I recall first from reading that was the golden hue of the cover and the impression that I was looking at a demi-god descended. What I don't recall was the reason this young woman trained for years to make a trek of thousands of kilometres through such hostile terrain. This film, as a narrative fiction ought to anchor itself on that very thing. Goody, closure!

Whether it is the sweep of the aerial photography of the terrible beauty of the land or that it is effectively personified in the subtle power of Mia Wasikowska's face what I saw was the same as the magazine story: the feat outranks the need. We get a good idea of the time and patience Davidson put in to do this mighty thing and there is a real sense of determination on screen but we just don't get why. Some scenes of childhood trauma are inserted and mount towards a confrontation that never quite happens. So, if it was a massive exercise in emotional analgesia it's still a mystery, by the end credits.

Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock was made only a few years before Davidson's feat and it used its setting to show the spooky effects of overdressed Edwardian stiffness confronting and perhaps being consumed by an alien nature. This film works best when it is showing us something similar, landscapes that could be from a planet simliar to ours but a slight kick further towards the star. But how effective can this be when we already know that Davidson who began life in rural hardship in western Queensland. The learning curve between the nature she was born into and this amped up version is a gentle one. The sense of conquest is only lessened by her own account.

The opportunity to extract herself from the chattering crowd seems reasonable but spending that much time and effort in her impatient mid twenties suggests a kind of sociopathy rather than hermit-like reclusion. The self administered secular baptism that we know is coming feels like much more than relief but, really, that's all we are privy to. We are given many signs of the magnitude of the physical journey but are left guessing about the personal one.

Mia Wasikowska has power as a screen presence and this performance does nothing to subtract from that. What she does give feels natural but it still falls short as she is simply not given enough to work with. This creates the same tension whenever we see an accomplished player in an undistinguished piece, a Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre, an Ellen Page in Inception, a De Niro in  ...  anything since Goodfellas. Was director John Curran unable or perhaps unwilling to overegg the splendid visual pudding before us with character depth? Is Davidson herself a poker faced misanthropic thing of stone (well, she did famously have a fling with fatwa-bound and camera-shy Salman Rushdie but .. ok, apart from wowing at that when I read it, that really has no place here)?

There is a decided lack of moment at points that ought to shake with it. Finding a safe swimming hole. Reaching the coast (oh come on that is not a spoiler). The very hard thing she is forced to do along the way (which I won't spoil). None of these things feel that important (even the very hard thing). Similarly, the sense of the danger she frequently finds herself in is suspense-free. All this is strange considering it is the story of someone whose confrontations with nature form the essence of the tale. Without the provision of anything else, a more than sketchy commentary by Davidson as a character on her journey for example, we are left wondering "so what" at an endeavour that few in the comfort of their cinema seats would dream of undertaking. Whether she is or not it just feels as though she's pretty much ok for the whole trip. A few prickles in the grass here and there but she's essentially fine.

We might be thankful that the relationship with National Geographic photographer Rick Smoalan is not overblown into a burgeoning romance of life-affirming power that lures Robyn back from the emotional wilderness and into modern wellness. It's played out quite naturalistically with help from a believably socially awkward Adam Driver but soon begins to serve as an assurance that Davidson is never really going to be tested unto death in the wilderness. One international poster for the film features the pair in a kneeling embrace on desert sands. If anyone pays for a ticket to this thinking they're in for a love story then I hope the choctops are good that day.

Oh and, is it too hard to imagine beyond an off the rack orchestral score for something like this. The pan flutes in Picnic at Hanging Rock added something alien to both civilisation and nature which fuelled unease and a real spookiness throughout. An electronic score comprised of the sounds of the locations would, with a little imagination draw the eerie beauty of the land out from the slide show we get.

So, we still don't why this extraordinary thing was done by this extraordinary person. We do know that it was done. With a mechanism designed to extract the conflict and jeopardy from everyday life and deliver a concentrated dose of it for our emotional and philosophical well being how can we end up with this dilution? How can, in other words, this cinematic representation be less engaging than the lines around the photographs of a few pages of a magazine from the 70s? All I know is that it shouldn't. Why don't I read the book, then? After this feckless teaser the best I'll say is that maybe I shall.

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