Sunday, 27 April 2014

Tracks: You couldn't do this now

I don’t like to write about good movies. Mostly because this seems to have turned into a blog which snarks about things, and good movies don’t give me much purchase for that kind of thing. So, while I enjoyed Tracks, I couldn’t see any way to write anything about it. It seems that the movie industry has been trying to make a film out of it ever since Robyn Davidson wrote her memoir of walking across half Australia with four camels and a dog in 1977. While it would be briefly amusing to imagine Michael Bay’s version (Robyn walks across the desert. Which EXPLODES!!!!!!), the reality is that one person walking across an unchanging landscape with no-one to talk to is a pretty tough film-making challenge. Davidson could write a book about it, because she could explain what she was doing and what she was thinking as she did it, and National Geographic magazine could get a photo spread out of it because Robyn Davidson - like a lot of other women who’ve got their own way in the past - was a striking looking woman in a striking landscape. But talking pictures thrive on incident and dialogue. They need interaction, and Davidson was a woman trying to get away from people and all that pesky interaction stuff.

All in all, it’s not surprising that the movie took so long to get made. The good part is that by waiting this long, they got the chance to cast Mia Wasikowska, who gives a compelling impression of quiet awkwardness. I have no idea how true to the real Robyn Davidson the performance is, but it feels real; Wasikowska’s Davidson is convincing  as someone who needs more space than the everyday world can give her. I’ve seen Wasikowska three times now, in Alice, in The Double and in Tracks. When I watched her in Alice, I thought she was stiff, but it’s dawning on me that this is not a weakness in her acting, but simply the kind of person that she is bleeding through into everything she plays; just as Joseph Gordon-Levitt can’t help looking intelligent, Wasikowska can’t help looking like a woman who knows her own mind. In Tracks, it’s what makes the movie work at all; she’s on screen almost every minute of the movie, the focus of everything which is happening, and she’s got the presence to make that work.

But that on its own doesn’t give me anything useful to say about the movie; it was only when I was brooding on it later that I realised that whatever about how how long it took to make the movie, you couldn’t do today what Davidson did then. She wanted to take that long walk and needed a lot of help to do it without killing herself in the process (much of the movie focuses on how long it took to get the resources to do the walk and what it cost her in compromises). In the end, the only way to equip herself was to get sponsorship from National Geographic, who sent along a photographer to get pictures, a concession which Davidson hated and cooperated with grudgingly. Today, it would be a reality TV spectacle, with a full time crew dogging her steps all along the way - and keeping away any competition who might try to break the exclusive. And it’s impossible to imagine Davidson, or anyone like her, going along with such a circus. Again and again the movie shows her pushing people away, hating the occasional tourists who tried to take pictures of the Camel Lady walking across the outback. This wasn’t about other people; it was about her. Even when she spends time in other people’s company, she’s listening, not talking; quiet, watchful, joining in with dances but always holding back. Today’s world wouldn’t let her do that; today’s world expects a non-stop commentary, the reporter as the star. Wasikowska gives us a Davidson who would never fit in out modern world, and it’s a remarkable performance in hindsight because she’s holding our attention while holding almost everything back.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that we’re getting this movie only now, when we could badly do with a reminder that it’s the quiet ones who you really have to watch.

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