Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Jenny Agutter, Lucien John, David Gulpilil
Director: Nicholas Roeg
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 100 Minutes
Release Date: May 18, 2010
“I don’t suppose it matters which way we go…”
Walkabout is a difficult film to categorize, mainly because it seems to fall in between two eras of thought in films regarding the relationship between ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ man. Had this movie been made earlier, it would have been a story about how an aborigine grew in culture and education through exposure to Western society. If it came out today, it would be drenched in political correctness about how the ‘white man’ ruined everything good and pure about a superior, if less advanced, way of life.
But Nicholas Roeg’s film came out in 1971, and regards said relationships, and everything else, with a curious eye of detachment. Neither one side nor the other ends up as the real benefactor in the course of their brief relationship. In fact, one might say, all sides ultimately lose.
It takes place in Australia, where a young girl (Agutter) and her little brother (John) are left to fend for themselves in the harsh outback. Why? I think I finally understand now that I’ve seen the film a few times…we see the father drive them out for a supposed picnic, but then start firing a gun at his own kids before setting their car ablaze and taking his own life. This time I took notice of his looking over a list of precious stones, and the exposition at the end about a mine abandoned because it turned out empty.
No matter…these British kids are left alone to try and make it back to familiar territory with only the food and drink in their picnic basket. It’s only when all seems hopeless that they encounter a young aborigine (the eternally wonderful Gulpilil), on his walkabout, a ritual in which he lives off the land and learns to become a man.
They can’t really communicate, but the black boy (that’s how his character is credited) shows them how to find water. He hunts successfully with spears and sticks, and they have food. They walk together…it’s clear the English kids don’t know where they’re going; does the native boy? He is the one who notices nearby civilization, but says nothing, and we never know if it’s deliberate or if he simply doesn’t understand that’s what the others are looking for.
If you think this movie is going down familiar roads, you are quite wrong. There is no revelation, no moment of understanding, no great meeting of minds and hearts. They exist together, but never really communicate. The white boy seems to understand a few things instinctively, but the girl never does…whether she’s unable or unwilling is never clear.
The tragedy of lack of communication comes near the end, when they arrive at an old abandoned house. The black boy dons paint and begins a dance outside the home. The white girl doesn’t understand. But he dances and dances and dances, hoping for a response that never comes. It leads to a devastating result.
Was it a mating dance? A celebration? A final attempt to bring understanding where none is either capable or really desired? Walkabout offers more questions than answers, while regarding all with an unbiased eye, much as the ever present lizards, flies and birds that permeate every scene.
Initially, I tried to wait until I had some time alone to watch and review this disc. I told my wife I didn’t think she’d like the movie, because it’s rather strange. We eventually watched it together, and while she agreed it was most unusual, she liked it more than I would have guessed. I suppose that’s a testament to the cinematic skill of Nicholas Roeg that he could make a statement about alienation manage to be appealing, and that audiences are willing to accept the lack of answers.
The photography is beautiful in the film, even when it focuses on ugly things, such as decay and death…after all, all of us in nature really do live off of the lives of other things. But again, all is presented with an eye of meditation and without prejudice. The young cast is remarkable, and this is the film that began the impressive career of David Gulpilil, who remains the go-to actor in any Western film dealing with aborigines, while never losing that native part of himself despite his screen successes.
In the end, I think the fact that the story lent itself to either of the two spins I first mentioned and stayed away from both is why the film remains singular and successful. Any film can preach or pretend to have the answers. A film that finds pondering the questions more rewarding than answering them is unique.
Despite the age, Criterion delivered a most impressive high definition transfer with this Blu-ray offering. The photography is first rate, and even though a few shots show a little grain, texture or aging, there is a wonderful array of natural wonders presented for us that come through even more remarkably than ever, thanks to greater clarity, crisper images and more detail.
The uncompressed mono is effective enough…there are enough subtleties in even a single channel track to offer dynamic range on the quiet end, while keeping spoken words and music clean and clear.
The disc begins with a solid commentary track from director Nicholas Roeg and star Jenny Agutter, who offer generous recollections about their time making the movie. There are also two modern interview segments with Agutter and Lucien John, who is actually Nicholas Roeg’s son. A documentary looks at the life and career of David Gulpilil. Finally, a trailer rounds out the extras.
Walkabout remains a strange, disturbing, and beautiful trek through the Australian wilderness and the human condition almost forty years after it’s release. Fans will enjoy this impressive new Blu-ray definition from Criterion, and if you’re not yet a fan, you couldn’t ask for a better way to experience it for the first time.