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Walkabout: The Criterion Collection

Voyager Home Video

Starring Jenny Agutter, Lucien John, and David Gulpilil

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

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"We want water. That's as simple as I can make it. Anybody can understand that."

— The Girl, Walkabout

Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout is quite literally a diamond in the rough. It's difficult to name another film in which the setting becomes quite so much a part of the tale, or is photographed quite this lovingly. Freeze any frame and you have a potential National Geographic cover shot. Every scene is deliberately chosen for its cinematic effect, and there's not a moment in the movie which doesn't convey astonishing beauty — visual poetry, if you will — even when the narrative is at its bleakest.

But "poetry in motion" is too simple a description for the wonders of Walkabout; its success and brilliance stem not just from Roeg's masterful use of the camera, but from the haunting, human characters which inhabit this world. The film, an adaptation of the celebrated novel by John Vance Marshall, follows the struggles of a fourteen year-old girl (Jenny Agutter) and her little brother (Lucien John, son of director Roeg) as they find themselves stranded in the Australian outback after an excursion with their father ends in tragedy.

An Aborigine boy (David Gulpilil) appears. He appears to be about sixteen years old, and speaks no English. He's on his walkabout — an Aborigine right of manhood in which a boy spends six months living in the wilderness, surviving on his wits and hunting prowess. Realizing that his two new friends are stranded, he travels with them, teaching his companions (via demonstration) how to survive in the fierce world of the Outback.

The cast is spectacular, especially given the limits of the story. There is very little dialogue in Walkabout; the majority of the tale is told via images and gestures, and this lack of communication, especially between the Aborigine and the girl (no character names are ever given in the film), only serves to enhance the drama. It's telling that it's the young boy who learns to communicate with their guide — as a child, his view of the world is less firm, more able to adapt. The girl, on the other hand, teeters on the brink of adulthood. Her ways are set, her views unchangeable — she repeatedly proves herself unable or unwilling to accept her situation, and at times she almost seems to resent her brother's ability to adapt to the situation, as well as his ability to "talk" with their strange new friend.

In fact, the lack of communication between the Aborigine and the girl leads to tragedy in the film's final moments, after they are unable to make their desires and needs clear to each other. Does the girl misunderstand the Aborigine's intentions? Or does she simply refuse to act on them? It's part of the film's genius that we never find out for sure. No one's hand is ever tipped to the camera — everyone's thoughts remain private, without any of the usual hallmarks of fiction: foreshadowing, soliloquies, internal monologues delivered via voice-over, etc. It's these traits that make the presentation feel more like a documentary than a work of fiction.

This documentary feel is also conveyed via Roeg's masterful use of point-of-view, which he keeps focused squarely on the three protagonists. Are there people out searching for the missing pair? We don't know, and neither do the characters. A lesser film would have cut-away shots of search parties frantically scouring the wilderness, quick images of Mom nervously pacing the living room floor, etc. By refusing to leave the characters, even for a moment, Roeg keeps our emotions tied to them. We feel their confusion and exhaustion; we share their concern.

Walkabout simultaneously exhausts and exalts the viewer. Its drama stems not so much from the acting or the screenplay as from Roeg's gift of transportation. Walkabout is a magical experience, a seminal film which any movie lover should have in his or her collection, alongside Metropolis, 2001, and the other cinematic masterpieces which not only tell a great story, but inspire wonderment and awe.

Criterion's DVD edition of Roeg's masterpiece is absolutely splendid, containing several minutes of new footage, a fabulous widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, an audio commentary track by Roeg and actress Jenny Agutter, two theatrical trailers, and an essay by critic Roger Ebert on the film's enduring appeal. Keep case.

— Joe Barlow

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