In the mid 1970s, young Australian Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) goes on a 1,700 mile trek across the deserts of Western Australia from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, with faithful dog, Diggity, after acquiring four camels - and not much encouragement. But she meets a well-connected freelance photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) who offers to introduce her to National Geographic magazine - which ends up sponsoring her trek. (Based on a true story)
Review by Louise Keller:
Solitude and a great sense of place is central to this gripping tale recounting Robyn Davidson's trek across the vast Australian desert in 1975, walking 1,700 miles with four camels and a dog as company. Most importantly, John Curran's film captures the essence of who is the woman they call The Camel Lady and what makes her tick. Mia Wasikowska delivers a star turn in what is a physically demanding role, effectively drawing us into her nomadic world as she shuns the repetitions and negativity of daily life within civilisation's social structures. The fact that we get to care about the Camel Lady is a testament to Wasikowska, adding emotional layers to her hero's journey of courage, determination and perseverance.
Davidson wants to be alone. That point is made clear from the very beginning, when she arrives in Alice Springs with her loyal black dog Diggity, intent on training feral camels to carry her things as she walks across the desert to the Indian Ocean. It is the purity of the desert that attracts her and cinematographer Mandy Walker ACS showcases the huge Australian expanse in all lights of the day and night, depicting the landscape as striking, barren, treacherous and beautiful. The earth changes from ochre to red dust to cracked, parched land to soft white sand in the course of the journey: the aerial shots especially arresting. Composer Garth Stevenson's almost monotonic score is effective by its insistent repetitiveness, constantly reinforcing the tedium of the long journey. The soundscape is good, too, the haunting tinkle from the bell around the camels' necks becomes a comforting sound. The camels Bubs, Dookie, Zeleika and baby calf Goliath are important characters, their distinctive features magnificently portrayed. They are a great part of the film's visual aspects.
While Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), the National Geographic Magazine photographer who tags along some of the way as a means of funding the trip for Davidson, says 'You have a problem with people,' it is not people per se that are the problem. More to the point, Davidson can manage people on her own terms; she is relaxed around the Aboriginals at the settlement and happy around Eddie, the Aboriginal Elder (Roly Mintuma), who cannot speak English. Nice people confound me, she says. Campfire conversations with strangers are an intrusion to deep thought and watching millions of stars twinkling in the pitch-black of the night sky.
The most surprising aspect of the story is the relationship that develops between Davidson and Rick: this could not be imagined in any fiction. Driver is excellent as the nerdy, obsessive photographer, who surprisingly becomes Davidson's greatest ally. But the relationship is conditional, unlike Davidson's relationships with the animals - her beloved dog and the four camels, who become her family.
The flashbacks that tell us about Davidson's childhood and the life circumstances that have impacted profoundly on her are well integrated, adding greater depth to the character of this self-acclaimed nomad who is at home - nowhere. It's a road movie, a drama and character study and emotionally the film resonates on all levels. Look out for the photos of the real Robyn Davidson in situ in the closing credits - they offer a great insight and we feel as though we have a greater understanding of her extraordinary journey that is at once physical, emotional and spiritual.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Of course camels are funny. They are the clowns of the animal kingdom (along with chimps I guess) and director John Curran made sure he got plenty of shots of their many expressions and editor Alexandre de Franceschi didn't waste any of them. Although this is a slight ingredient in the film and one that I suspect never made it to the pitch for finance, it is actually a valuable visceral addition to the film's mood. How daunting it must have been to try and sell financiers on a story of a lone woman trekking across the desert for eight months with four camels and a dog. It's one thing to have the journey documented in still photos in a magazine like National Geographic, but quite another to spend millions of dollars on taking a crew to shoot ... what, desert?
Needless to say any of the financiers who resisted the investment may well regret that decision. John Curran has delivered film that has many more plusses than camels with big, sad eyes and hilarious lips. Above all, it has Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, absolutely authentic and credible as a character as well as being insightful about her. It's a physically tough role, but even tougher is the challenge to portray deep seated emotions with subtlety and care - and clarity. Wasikowska, already recognised as a fine actress, will now leap ahead in her career.
But her performance would be diminished if it were not for a matching performance by Adam Driver as the photographer. This was a brilliant casting choice, Driver's natural warmth and credible conflicts about Robyn all contributing to a relationship we understand and respect.
Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy, who guides Robyn part of the way across sacred sites - is played by Rolly Mintuma - and played superbly. We warm to him instantly and his humour keeps us glued/ And that's without speaking English. But all the supports are wonderful creations, from Rainer Bock's bristly Kurt Posel to Robert Coleby's 'Pop' Davidson and John Flaus as the magnificent Afghani camel-man, Sallay.
Marion Nelson's adaptation is insightful, sensitive and yet robust; Robyn's honesty in her memoir is respected and so is the intelligence of the audience. Mandy Walker's glorious cinematography does justice equally to the land and to the characters, always tasteful, always relevant.
John Curran has brought together and orchestrated a fabulous cast and crew who between them have made a film that is greater than the sum of its parts - and those parts are pretty impressive to start with. A real triumph against the odds - just as was Robyn's journey.
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CAST: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Emma Booth, Jessica Tovey, Rainer Bock, Robert Coleby, Rolley Mintuma, Melanie Zanetti
PRODUCER: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
DIRECTOR: John Curran
SCRIPT: Marion Nelson
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mandy Walker
EDITOR: Alexandre de Franceschi
MUSIC: Garth Stevenson
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Melinda Doring
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 6, 2014