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VENICE - Packing films, as one would sardines, into the snug, air-locked space of even the biggest festival always uncovers unforeseen parallels and commonalities, making happy bedfellows of works that otherwise wouldn’t have much to say to each other. With John Curran’s wonderful Australian adventure “Tracks” having just christened the Competition 24 hours after Alfonso Cuaron’s mindboggling space thriller “Gravity” opened the fest, it seems we have this year’s first pair of Lido buddies: two days in, Venice 2013 is the festival of women fighting the elements.
That’s a glib reading, of course, and one that does a disservice to both films’ subtleties, some of them also shared. With the Outback desert a pretty indomitable (not to mention indomitably pretty) presence from the outset, “Tracks” seems a woman-versus-land story only until it emerges that the land is a reflection of the woman herself.
In 1975, Robyn Davidson, a hard-headed, 25-year-old Queensland native, set out for Alice Springs to pursue her dream of walking the 2000-mile expanse of desert between that particular middle of nowhere and the Indian Ocean. She almost certainly didn’t imagine (or wish) her story would become mainstream film fodder; unassumingly severe and openly self-oriented, she’s a figure who wouldn’t appear to have much time at all for other versions of other lives. Yet her expansive, plainspoken memoir “Tracks,” with its satisfyingly challenging central quest and self-evidently cinematic backdrop, has been an obvious siren call to film producers for decades now. Julia Roberts was attached to the project in the mid-1990s, a possibility both intriguing and hazardous: it’s hard to imagine the naturally plucky star marrying herself to the environment in quite the way that Davidson’s personal narrative requires, that mile-wide smile filling up with windblown sand.
Good things come to those who wait, and the (very) good thing in this case is Mia Wasikowska, the tranquil-faced Australian actress who, at 23, is even younger than Davidson was when she embarked on her impossibly possible journey. Pale and birch-like, possessed of an unusual beauty that doesn’t come separate from an innate intelligence, she has successfully built her career so far on a kind of cool but relatably reticent quality: through starring roles in the likes of “Jane Eyre” and “Stoker”, she’s become a go-to girl for characters who are nobody’s go-to girls. As such, she’s ideal for the role of Robyn, a woman who doesn’t mean to be antisocial, but has strictly rationed practical use for the company – social, professional or even sexual – of others. “How can you tell a nice person to just crawl into a hole and die?” she asks a sympathetic benefactor at one point. In Wasikowska’s quiet phrasing, it’s not a facetious question.
That nice person who initially takes the brunt of Davidson’s people problem – well, that’s what he chooses to call it, at least – is Rick Smolan (the winningly strange Adam Driver), the gauche but eager American photographer assigned by National Geographic to document her journey at various points along the way. For her, his presence is a necessary but invasive imposition: the magazine may be bankrolling her endeavor, but she has no idea how to publicly present a trial she’s undergoing for reasons that aren’t just private, but hard to articulate even to herself.
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