Something about the image of a stalwart, resourceful woman fending for herself in an alien wilderness brings out the best in filmmakers. Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” (1971), Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” (2008) and “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2013), Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” (2013), even Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) — each redefines the meaning of heroism with female protagonists who take on the perilous indifference of the universe and acquit themselves with distinction.
Add to those John Curran’s adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s autobiographical book “Tracks.” In it he presents a vision of nature that shimmers with uncanny beauty and eerie solitude, transcended by Mia Wasikowska in one of the best performances of the year.
Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson, who in 1977, for reasons that grow more comprehensible in the film but are never made fully clear, decided to walk from Alice Springs in central Australia across the continent to the Indian Ocean. That’s a distance of nearly 2,000 miles (nearly double that traversed by Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed in the upcoming “Wild”), most of it through desert. It’s a very similar challenge to that faced involuntarily by the heroine in “Walkabout,” and Davidson first conceived of the expedition in 1975, four years after Roeg’s film came out. “It was a very particular time in the development of the Australian psyche,” Davidson remarked in a 2007 interview. “There was the sense that you could do remarkable things.”
And do them alone. As depicted in the film, Davidson is not much of a people person. But she has a way with animals, and plans to make the trek with three adult camels, a cute baby camel named Goliath, and her dog Diggity.
Unfortunately, to get funding she must agree to share the occasional company of Rick Smolan (Adam Driver in his best big screen performance to date), a National Geographic photographer who starts the journey adorably dorky and shallow but, like Davidson, ends it changed for the better.
Using frequent aerial shots of endless, reddish emptiness and longshots of the tiny figures passing in the distance, Curran evokes the immensity and seductiveness of Davidson’s challenge. He also toys with the fear that at any point not just the wildness of nature but that of human beings is going to erupt, as in Ted Kotcheff’’s 1971 masterpiece “Wake in Fright.” Attacks by feral bull camels in heat are no more disturbing than the caravans of tourists who buzz at Davidson like the desert’s ubiquitous flies, snapping pictures of the famous “Camel Lady.”
Despite these intrusions, and the increasingly amicable visits by Smolan, Davidson speaks rarely. But, when she does, her words have a sibyl-like clarity and calm. Even when she is most distraught — in one scene she wanders naked and blistered in a radiant void — she evinces a purity of spirit. Of all characteristics, goodness and determination might be the hardest for an actor to sustain, and Wasikowska does so with nuanced intensity. Her Robyn Davidson is a hero for our times.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.