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Walkabout

Walkabout(1971)

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Ace cinematographer Nicolas Roeg made an auspicious transition to directing with 1970's Performance, a bizarre part-musical drama about a "Secret Sharer" relationship between a gangster on the lam and a reclusive, eccentric rock star played by Mick Jagger. The movie's edgy adult content earned Roeg and his co-director Donald Cammell reputations as potential geniuses, talents to be watched.

The very next year, when the Easy Rider wave of youth rebellion was already cresting, Nicolas Roeg offered up as his first solo directing effort Walkabout, a delicate art house adventure filmed in the Australian outback. In place of drugs and revolution, the movie deals with the nature of innocence and touches upon the sexual awakening of an odd pair of teenagers. Jenny Agutter is a Sydney schoolgirl lost with her brother in the desert. The interesting David Gulpilil is a young aborigine undergoing his "Walkabout" manhood ritual, in which young men are simply sent into the wild to fend for themselves for several months. Nicholas Roeg tells much of the story non-verbally, and experiments with the creative editing patterns he'd exploit much further in later films. Walkabout is laden with lyrical and poetic images and carries a constant tension with its theme of underage sensuality. Billed as the White Girl and the Black Boy, the adolescents are eventually attracted to each other, creating an unstated tension that neither is prepared to deal with.

Edward Bond's screenplay, from a book by James Vance Marshall, places small children in jeopardy in a cruel landscape. The Girl and her younger Brother (the director's son Luc Roeg, billed as Lucien John) are abandoned in the outback by their Father (John Meillon), who has apparently lost his mind. The Girl is just mature enough to shield her brother from the truth. She engages him in a calm game of walking out of the desert. They climb hills, avoid animals and pause by a water hole, which mysteriously dries up not long after they arrive. The situation looks hopeless until they meet the Black Boy. Apparently doing quite well on his Walkabout, the Boy uses spears to kill monitor lizards for food and shows his new companions how to obtain water from a muddy gulley. The Girl is cautious but impressed by the Boy's skills. Curiously, it's little Brother who learns a few words of the aboriginal language, to ask for water. The aboriginal Boy is both gentle and respectful. He intuits what the children want, and accompanies them in the direction of the nearest white settlement. But when the trio reaches an abandoned house, the Boy's interest in the Girl finally finds expression.

Acting as his own cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg's artistic response to the desert's colorful rocks, odd plant life and strange animals goes beyond realism. Lizards stalk like miniature dinosaurs and display wide frills around their necks; odd insects look for food and a cute little hedgehog-like mammal sniffs around the children as they sleep. The Boy is fully adapted to this cruel landscape. All he seems to require is his fistful of hand-fashioned spears. The Girl keeps her clothes as neat as she can and observes proper rules of behavior, partly not to upset her brother. The little boy doesn't fully comprehend that his life is in danger. He accepts things as they come, and trusts his sister's judgment without question. If she says they're not really lost, then he won't worry about it.

With its focus on children naturally abiding a dangerous situation, Walkabout is somewhat similar to Alexander Mackendrick's A High Wind in Jamaica. But Roeg keeps us focused on very specific relationships. With no verbal communication possible, the Girl learns just enough about the Boy to decide that he's not a threat. Although the Boy is experienced in survival techniques, he's still an adolescent; the three often play like ordinary kids. Their somewhat idyllic relationship confronts issues normally untouched in 1971. Audiences were pleased by the movie's innocent vision of under-aged children of different races swimming together naked, beyond the unnatural rules of society. The trio's natural companionship seems precarious only when they make contact with civilization. The first white man they meet is an annoying caretaker oblivious to their emergency. He slams his door in their faces and orders them to stay off company property.

The travelers camp near a highway. Realizing that they'll soon be separated, the Boy paints himself in ceremonial colors to perform a ritual dance. The Girl feels threatened by this and avoids him. We soon realize that the dance is a courtship rite. The Boy has lost his heart to his new friend, and is doubly saddened when his magic dance doesn't bridge the cultural boundary. Walkabout presents a credible version of the "innocent wilderness" fantasy found in stories like The Blue Lagoon.

Director Roeg adds interest through memory flashbacks and overlays of associative imagery. His movie begins with scenes of the Girl and the Brother in their schoolrooms, and at play in the pool of their parents' luxury apartment. Roeg occasionally interrupts his desert trek with montages of life back in the concrete anthills of the city. The Girl's thought process is illustrated by memory cuts back to the spectacle of her father shooting himself after setting fire to their car. Seeing some camels, the little brother imagines an early explorer riding one across the desert. The visual ties in with a scene in Roeg's later The Man Who Fell to Earth, a time-travel vision of a hundred year-old wagon train that magically appears in the present.

The director doesn't task his visuals to suggest the presence of mystical forces, as Peter Weir does in his supernatural thriller The Last Wave. The trio's first contact with the 'normal' world is an abandoned mine, a ruin that covers the landscape with rusted metal. Instead of the expected ecological statement, the ugly sight is treated as just another adventure shared by the lost children. As they are too young to frame their situation in an ironic context, their reactions seem entirely honest.

One rather unnecessary cutaway shows a female researcher and her Italian helpers working at a different location in the desert. The men spend their time ogling her neckline and legs. Possibly meant as comic relief, the scene seems a strained attempt to provide a contrast to the idyllic relationship forming between the Girl and the Boy. But Roeg doesn't preach that primitive ways are superior to modern society. An aboriginal family that discovers the burned car is not touted as an ideal human living unit, simply a different one. Apparently following a burial custom, they perch the father's corpse up in a tree.

Nineteen year-old Jenny Agutter already had six years of film experience and came to Walkabout directly from an acclaimed performance in Lionel Jeffries' The Railway Children. A graceful and expressive actress, she carries Walkabout with ease. The Girl's unemotional way of facing adversity never seems the slightest bit forced, and her later intuition of a connection with The Boy is beautifully understated. First-time actor David Gulpilil is a gifted "natural" performer. We don't understand the Boy's language but we can tell that he's both good-hearted and decent. It's natural that he'd eventually develop a crush on the Girl. The tragedy of their relationship is that his tribal upbringing affords him only one way of showing his admiration.

Criterion's Blu-ray (and also a DVD release) of Walkabout presents Nicolas Roeg's unique masterpiece in a beautiful HD transfer that retains the sharpness and delicate colors of original theatrical prints. Roeg's expert camerawork is handsomely represented. John Barry's music score weaves between natural sounds and snippets of pop tunes from the Girl's portable radio. Barry also frames some children's songs in a wistful choral context.

Director Roeg and Jenny Agutter offer their observations on a full-length commentary track. Roeg generously explains some of his visual motifs, as when he uses a brick wall as a transition piece between the outback and the city. He also recalls asking his son to pose and point while standing at the brink of a steep cliff, and hearing the boy's tiny, inquiring voice through his walkie-talkie: "What does he want me to now? " Ms. Agutter says that she was fourteen when first approached about this film. She remembers initially wanting the role because it might afford her an opportunity to meet the Beatles!

Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg are also present for individual video interviews. Each has strong memories of the filming, forty years later. Actor-dancer David Gulpilil is represented in an engaging 2002 documentary about his life and career, Gulpilil - One Red Blood. Roeg discovered Gulpilil at age 16 in a missionary school; the actor went on to give impressive performances in movies by Peter Weir, Philip Kaufman, Philippe Mora and Wim Wenders.

For more information about Walkabout, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Walkabout, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson