There is something elegiac, understated and dreamlike about this film that transforms what is basically the story of a trek across the Australian outback with a bunch of camels into a mythical quest; a journey of transcendence.
Based on the best-selling book by Robyn Davidson, who did indeed walk across Australia in the 1970s with only four camels and her dog Diggity for company, the plot cleverly counterpoises the gritty realities of how to train and lead a bunch of curmudgeonly camels with scenes that show us glimpses of Robyn’s interior world; her motivations, memories, hopes and fears.
Rising star Mia Wasikowska, stripped of make-up and most of her clothes, plays Robyn as a fiercely independent individual, who seems not to want or need the company of others, and the reasons for this desire to be solitary only become clear through a series of flashbacks neatly interwoven into the narrative. What works less well is the spiky relationship Robyn has with the National Geographic photographer (played by Adam Driver) who is sent at regular intervals to record her progress through the vastness of the Australian desert. Yet other scenes of human interaction work better; at one point Robyn is guided by Aboriginal tracker Mr Eddie (Toly Mintuma) who seems to instantly understand her need for isolation on an instinctive level.
There’s also one perfect moment in the movie where Marion Nelson, the scriptwriter, utterly seamlessly interweaves two themes. This is the culmination of all the flashbacks showing glimpses of Robyn’s past, but also the point where she experiences the first human contact she has had in weeks on a cattle station blighted by drought. Although very little is said, what is conveyed is loss and bereavement and – through the small, kind acts of the elderly couple who own the station – human dignity and a reaffirmation of Robyn’s humanity. It’s a brilliantly underplayed section of the film and marks a turning point in Robyn’s quest to find herself.
This is a slow charmer of a movie, filled with the gorgeous and extraordinary Australian landscapes captured by cinematographer Mandy Walker and made more spiritual by Mia Wasikowska’s ability to convey complex emotions through silence. Enjoy.