Friday, November 19, 2010

Walkabout (1971) by Nicolas Roeg

Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film 'Walkabout' tells the story of an English brother and sister stranded in the Outback after their father inexplicably snaps, shooting at them before setting his car on fire and killing himself. The pair of siblings are left to fend for themselves, but it isn't long before they're out of food and water, so they have to rely on the help of an Aborigine boy they meet who is living in the wilderness as part of a ritual Walkabout to mark his transition into manhood. The children initially have no way of communicating with the Aborigine, but the younger brother is able to get their needs across via pantomime, while the older sister (Jenny Agutter) is less adaptable, never fully understanding their guide and always longing to return to civilisation. The differences between the two vastly opposed cultures is the central theme of Roeg's film, but his work is also a comment on the tide of industry versus nature, the innocence of the Aborigine and the English boy that allows them to communicate on the same level versus the civilised bearing of Agutter's character that she's incapable of shedding, and the subtext of sexual tension between the Aborigine and the girl. But ultimately, from the Agutter character's perspective, it's a film about regret and a missed opportunity, a longing for the simpler existence met in the Outback, as once returned to civilisation she reflects fondly on her time with the Aborigine, imagining a version of the bathing scene where she was able to let her guard down and allow the Aborigine to join her.

The film is wonderfully shot, with some truly stunning views of the Outback and it's denizens, but at times Roeg is certainly guilty of over-using various techniques to get his message across. Often the film will make sharp cuts back and forth, hammering home Roeg's theme of cultural juxtaposition with shots of a natural cliff face versus a brick wall, or the Aborigine boy dismembering a carcass versus a butcher performing the same act in an abattoir. While this may have been unconventional at the time, it isn't entirely effective and is ultimately a detriment to the film, as are the scenes involving a research team in the Outback that serves little purpose beyond explaining the presence of a weather balloon that provides yet another nod to society in the wilderness. Regardless, this is a stunning film with wonderful performances from a young Jenny Agutter and Aborigine actor David Gulpilil, and while the delivery may not be entirely consistent, the message presented by Nicolas Roeg is no less poignant nearly forty years on.

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