“Tracks” never gets untracked

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If someone mentioned that a film involved riding camels, where would you think that it was set…..Afghanistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia? How about Australia? Would that ever occur to you as the locale?

In fact, the world’s largest population of feral camels happens to be in Australia of all places. Camels are not indigenous to the continent. However, during the 19th and early 20th century when the central and western parts of Australia were being colonized, over 15,000 camels were imported to provide transportation through the county’s vast desert. With the advent of motorized vehicles, camels became largely obsolete. Many were released into the wild.

A still of Mia Wasikowska in "Tracks" from www.rotentomatoes.com.

A still of Mia Wasikowska in “Tracks” from www.rotentomatoes.com.

The film, “Tracks,” is based on the best-selling 1980 memoir of the same name by Robyn Davidson. In it, she recounts her 1,700 mile, nine-month trek from Alice Springs in central Australia westward to reach the Indian Ocean. Along the way, she was accompanied by her faithful dog, Diggity, and four camels.

It’s 1977, when 26-year old Robyn (Mia Wasikowska) shows up in Alice Springs without any money or experience as a trekker. She doesn’t even own a tent to sleep in. The only thing that she does have is a farfetched aspiration. Robyn has it in her head that she will acquire a few camels, then train them to transport her and requisite supplies through the desert. Robyn is undaunted by the salient fact that she has no background with camels. Anyone who learns of her plans, dismisses her as a hopelessly quixotic fool.

After a few false steps, Robyn works under the tutelage of Sallay (John Flaus), a turban wearing Afghanistani with a pronounced Aussie accent. He teaches Robyn the rudiments of camel wrangling. Flaus is unfamiliar to American audiences. However, in his native Australia, he is a highly regarded both as an actor and a film scholar. Though the casting might seem odd on its face, Flaus makes for a great addition to the cast. A scene of him castrating a camel is one of the film’s most memorable. At one juncture, he warns Robyn that if she is ever rushed by a bull camel, don’t think, just shoot. It is dramatic foreshadowing for one of the film’s few charged moments.

Robyn meets Rick Smolan (Adam Driver from television’s “Girls”), a nebbishy, twenty something American photographer with “National Geographic.” He is obviously taken with Robyn, but she responds to him with an undisguised irritation. As a result of Rick’s intervention, “National Geographic,” agrees to finance Robyn’s journey and publish the story. Robyn displays no gratitude to Rick for his efforts on her behalf. Instead, when the publication assigns Rick as the one to document her journey, Robyn expresses chagrin. He plans to intermittently rendezvous with Robyn along the route of her journey and take photographs intended to grace the eventual cover story.

Director, John Curran (“Praise,” “The Painted Veil”) working with cinematographer, Mandy Walker, provides a film that is visually arresting. The numerous desert scenes have a beautiful allure. The film benefits from the Alexandre de Francesci’s adroit editing and Garth Stevenson’s resonant score.

The screenplay is credited to someone, who wrote it under the literary cognomen, Marion Nelson. Why is the writer intent on concealing their identity? This mystery is more interesting than the film itself. The source memoir featured Davidson’s strong opinions, in particular her indictment of the prevalent racism in Australia. By contrast, the film version contains only the most muted criticism of the treatment of aborigines.

“Tracks” contains several flashbacks to Robyn’s childhood. We learn that when she was a young girl, her mother committed suicide. Robyn’s emotionally distant father dispatched her to be raised by relatives. Despite these flashbacks and some voiceovers, the film provides little to illuminate what propels Robyn. She remains an inscrutable cypher.

“Tracks” has all the trappings of an adventure flick. It depicts events, which might have made for a compelling tale of overcoming adversity, replete with a gender twist. Instead, the film becomes a character study of its prickly female protagonist. The elements of adventure take a back seat to the internal dynamics of the lead character.

The problem is that the character in question, as portrayed by Ms. Wasikowska, is cold, unappealing, and inaccessible. She exhibits little spirit of adventure, only a resolute desire to escape humankind. Adding to the problem is that she seems to be profoundly lacking in self-awareness. Robyn complains that she wants to get away from society, which the protagonist finds unbearable. Later, when visited by Rick at one of their pre-designated meeting points, she bemoans the fact that she feels all alone. Robyn sees oblivious to her blatant hypocrisy. Wasn’t her trip inspired by a desire for solitude?

Despite its stunningly beautiful scenery and a top notch technical package, “Tracks” never really gets untracked.

**1/2 PG-13 (for thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language) 112 minutes.

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.

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