Nicolas Roeg’s vibrant and visceral trip through the Australian outback
Walkabout opens within the urban sprawl of Sydney. The throttle of car engines gives way to the sound of didgeridoos. The first instance of a contrast, and in some ways a clash, between Western settlers and Aboriginal culture. Bustling though the city, the camera settles on a man (John Meillon), who is casting an eye on his his teenage daughter (Jenny Agutter) playing with her younger brother (Luc Roeg) in the pool of their apartment building. The sense of unease here, carries over into a family trip, as he takes them into the Australian outback for a picnic. A swirl of events follows. The noise of a radio, the cries of the daughter to come eat, and the rambunctious play of the child, all pierced by the sound of gunfire. This man, suddenly taking aim at his kids, before he sets the car on fire, and turns the weapon upon himself. Surviving the onslaught, the pair set off on foot, and after the brief respite afforded by an oasis, soon find themselves sun stricken, and without food and water. They cross paths with a young aborigine (a warm and layered performance from David Gulpilil) on walkabout, the rite of passage to mark his entry to adulthood. The skills he tests during this, become the best hope for these siblings survival, as they begin their trek back to civilization.
It’s an opening that leaves you with plenty of questions, as well as a sense of whiplash. A chaotic act of brutality that shatters the family unit, and leaves these two children cast adrift in dangerous surrounds. There’s an immediate cultural contrast of this British pairing with an individual who is native to the surrounds. It’s easy to sneer at the frivolity of taking a picnic in one of the most harsh landscapes on the globe, but clearly safety was not at the forefront of the father’s mind. Walkabout is less a critique of this white duo being underprepared for the outback, but rather a critique of those who close themselves off from communication, collaboration, and learning. A clash between tradition and modernity. The young boy strikes up an accord with their guide through exuberance and finding a way to exchange ideas, even in the absence of a common tongue. The girl however seems aloof, and even above the idea of even trying to build bridges. While together survival is possible, without a connection and understanding, the two worlds that they come from will forever be disparate. Permeating everything is a sense of primality. Within this natural environment, and man too. Roeg juxtaposing scenes of the hunt with those in a Sydney butchers shop, underscores how this facet of our being persists, wherever we are. The other driving force that comes to bear is sexual in nature. A bubbling undercurrent between these two teens, that again due to a cultural divide and lack of understanding, leads the film to it’s most tragic moment.
The films opening title card explains the purpose of the walkabout, to learn how to survive the land, and to respect it. There are some heavy handed moments in the film that drive home this ecological message, but it’s something that is actually seared into every frame. Beautifully shot, Walkabout showcases Roeg’s own experience as a cinematographer prior to sitting in the director’s chair. The Australian outback is showcased in all its beauty and brutality. From lush foliage, to desolate earth, from beautiful birds and animals, to the brutality of the various predators that strew the landscape. Vivid and visceral, Roeg’s work tilts into the the experiential giving the film a hypnotic feel. Hazy, with events taking place between indeterminate spans of time and place. Roeg masterfully captures the relentlessness of the environment, and how exposure to it takes a psychological as well as a physical toll.
Criterion’s release is one of the most impressive 4K transfers I’ve seen in a while. A showcase for the format, with verdant visuals and impressive detail. Foliage, sand, lizards and other creatures that linger in closeup shots are remarkable in terms of detail and texture. Colors are deeply saturated and just lush to behold. From the starkness of the day for night shots, to the vivid warmth of the sun-basked outback, it’s impeccably rendered. The release includes the 4K-UHD edition of the film, as well as a Blu-ray copy, which also houses all the extra features:
- Audio commentary featuring director Nicolas Roeg and actor Jenny Agutter: Roeg dominates with insights into his approach to making the film, high on technical insights and personal intent
- Interviews with Agutter and actor Luc Roeg: The pair reflect on the making of the film, aspects of their own career, and Luc spills some of the experience of working under his father
- Gulpilil—One Red Blood (2002), a documentary on the life and career of actor David Gulpilil: Perhaps the most enjoyable feature here, serving as a celebration of this man’s body of work, notably his performance in Rabbit-Proof Fence
- PLUS: An essay by author Paul Ryan: Included in the liner booklet, which also details the work done to realize this new 4K release
- Cover by Neil Kellerhouse
The Bottom Line
Walkabout is one of those films that sears your vision and buries itself in your psyche. A psychological journey through the Australian outback, that takes in all the beauty and brutality that the landscape, and those within it, have to offer. A vivid and visceral piece of filmmaking, that hits all the harder thanks to this resplendent 4K transfer.
Walkabout is available via Criterion on 4K-UHD now