There is a curious piece of text at the beginning of Nicolas Roeg’s Australian epic whose origins no one seems to be sure of: the director didn’t put it there. He erroneously describes pacing as an Aboriginal right of way, as opposed to the aberrational behavior of a person who relinquishes social responsibilities to him. In any sense, the person it applies to the most in this film is not the young Aboriginal character of his but the white girl he falls in love with.
The girl (Jenny Agutter) is gentle, even prissy, very self-conscious as part of a civilization brought over from England to the point where she maintains the English accent favored by Australia’s wealthy classes at the time. It’s unclear exactly where she comes from: we see her first in Sydney, but then she’ll talk about walking to Adelaide. Rather than feel like a mistake, this contributes to the feeling that the action is taking place in a place separate from the rest of the world, where the usual rules don’t apply, regardless of your efforts to stick to them. She is a colonial figure adrift in a strange landscape, seemingly defenseless, symbolic and perhaps psychically threatening.
He is in the Outback, along with his little brother (credited as Lucien John, actually the director’s son, Luc Roeg), when a shocking event rips them apart from the ordinary fabric of their lives. Under the guise of organizing a picnic, his father takes them to the desert, tries to shoot them, and then commits suicide. Although he manages to keep them both safe, they are stranded. Anxious not to let her brother see what has happened, she grabs some supplies and quickly escorts him away from the scene, and away from the plume of smoke that might have been her best hope of rescue.
The film is an adaptation of a popular novel attributed to James Vance Marshall (although he almost certainly did not write it; its origins are also shrouded in mystery). in the book, the children are stranded in a plane crash; here the boy plays with a toy plane. The girl is wearing a piece of red cloth, and the color red appears throughout the film at significant points, almost absent otherwise, forming a curious connection to Agutter’s character in The Railway Children, which was released a year later. earlier but was actually filmed a year later. . She also carries the white silk picnic tablecloth that offers them shelter from the worst of the desert sun while suggesting surrendering to it. When they rest in an oasis, the boy places a small wind-up plastic rowboat in the water, but he will soon abandon these emblems of white civilization for a chance to learn more practical skills.
The opportunity to do so comes with the arrival of Aboriginal youth (David Gulpilil, then a newcomer renowned for his skill as a dancer, now a well-established actor). He is moving around the Outback for his own reasons, but takes pity on the two obviously incompetent outsiders and decides to travel with them. They don’t have a common language (the same thing happened in reality, so Gulpilil improvised his own lines), but he and the boy manage to communicate quite well through tone and gestures, gradually picking up each other’s words. of the other.
The girl remains aloof, perhaps representative of an older generation less willing to adjust to her new surroundings, frustrated with youth because even when she tries to speak louder and clearer, he won’t fit in with her. However, they are both of a certain age, and as they travel, it becomes clear that something else is going on between them. It is an attraction that appears to be mutual, but which she rejects, again not wanting to commit. In the film’s epitaph, which sees her apparently married and completely domesticated, she will yearn for the freedom of that time, but is willing to sacrifice that freedom to preserve other aspects of her identity and, perhaps, the privilege that whiteness offers her.
The three young performers are in excellent form in a film that makes minimal use of dialogue (they aren’t even given names) and often leaves them alone, with the camera watching them from a distance. The cinematography is impressive, as one would expect given Roeg’s background, conveying the vastness of the landscape even as the drama remains small and intimate. Although the young man can read it, white children lose themselves in it as if in a dream. Roeg breathes life into that space, making the girl in particular seem even more out of place, going to great lengths to keep her school uniform clean as she wanders, often unseen, among snakes, skinks, wombats, kangaroos, and birds of a kind. countless types. A particularly attractive echidna takes a dust bath. She will dust herself off before returning to a man-made world.
Once seen, impossible to forget, Roeg’s immersive Outback odyssey seems to speak to a world on the brink of destructive change. There is a sense that the young man recognizes this, that his romantic frustrations mean something deeper, an awareness of the tragedy that people face, but in the end, the sense of loss is even greater than this. It’s not just his world that’s at stake. The passage from youth to adulthood is paralleled by a cultural change that brings with it all kinds of possibilities but also, inevitably, death. Cyclical time gives way to linear, creating the possibility of an end to all things.
Few movies really deserve to be described as epic. This is one of them.
Reviewed on: 07 Aug 2022