Criterion Sunday 10: Walkabout (1971)

At a surface level, this is a coming-of-age film set in the Australian outback, but there’s a lot more mystery to it than such a summary would suggest. In fact, I’ve had great difficulty trying to describe it to friends. In part that’s because of director Nicolas Roeg’s coolly modernist structuring, with its associative editing practices which embeds both different timelines (flashbacks, memories, or, as in the final sequence, more an act of imagination) and places, as well as brief snippets of a dangerous and forbidding natural world that works in conjunction with its central characters’ journey. Jenny Agutter’s English schoolgirl and her younger brother (there are no names, but played by Lucien John) are stranded in the outback when their father commits suicide; this setup is all presented very obliquely and with a minimum of explanation (aside from a lingering sense of suburban ennui). Eventually they stumble across a young aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil), who is also apparently undergoing the title’s rite of passage, and a connection slowly develops, though it’s never insisted upon. At times, there’s a certain National Geographic pseudo-ethnography to the depiction of aboriginal life as untouched by Western civilisation, but this ultimately lends a fabulist, mythical dimension to the story, which enacts the naïve, and ultimately destructive, meeting between the races and the tragic difficulties of communication.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg; Writer Edward Bond (based on the novel by James Vance Marshall); Starring Jenny Agutter, Lucien John, David Gulpilil; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 21 April 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 23 November 2014).


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