Colonialism, sex, death; and not always in that order. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout is still an enigma forty-five years after the auteur put adolescence, colonial violence, and desert lizards in a film can, shook them, and poured the contents onto screen in vibrant, living color.
The plot is raw, simple, and linear. A middle-class English geologist (John Meillon) leads his two children – one a young boy, the other an adolescent girl – into the Australian outback desert for a picnic. Presumably maddened by the failing of a mine, he fires off a few rounds of his pistol to kill them, sets his car ablaze and blows his own brains out.
Figure 1: We’re off to a great start. Dad has shot and immolated himself at a family picnic.
The boy (Luc Roeg) and the girl (Jenny Agutter) survive this horrific prolicide and wander stoically into the desert, armed only with a transistor radio and a bag full of toys. Facing near-death they happen across an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on walkabout, a trial of adulthood where the boy must live in this forbidding landscape alone for a period.
The black boy saves the white girl and boy by sharing his daily hunt with them, even though they can only barely communicate with him. He leads them back towards civilization as they slowly adapt to their circumstances and achieve a kind of terrific, silent intimacy in a series of sequences that celebrate the brutality and rich liveliness of the outback’s complex ecology.
Figure 2: The awkwardness and intimacy in the relationships between the three characters charts the whole of the world.
Eventually their travels out of the desert lead them towards white settlement, such as it is in the most brutal and racist corners of Australia in 1970, and the spell is broken. The aboriginal boy adopts the formal rituals of courtship and attempts to reach the girl, who rejects him, in a strange sequence of profound misunderstanding. The next day, the aboriginal boy is dead in a tree.
Figure 3: David Gulpilil’s final unrequited dance is beautiful, exhausting, and ultimately tragic.
The white children wander into civilization, at the fringes of a failed mining settlement. A coda shows the girl, now grown and living in the middle-class flat of her childhood, now locked in a bourgeois marriage, imagining and remembering her time in the desert with the aboriginal boy.
Three actors on the world’s toughest stage
The film sinks or swims on the curious ensemble that Roeg achieves in his tiny cast. These three must be convincing, forceful and real, in a landscape that swallows them whole, with vast sand flats, strange forests, rocky Martian moonscapes, brutal cliffs, all kinds of wildlife, and a series of abandoned, frontier-like industrial ruins. Finding three kids to stand up to the torment of these setting without drowning its natural magic couldn’t have been easy.
The young white boy is played by Luc Roeg, the director’s son. He executes with aplomb. Only the English boy seems to have a chance to make an empathetic connection between the white world from which he has come and the aboriginal language and landscapes. As such, Luc Roeg must mimic movements and deliver questions in a way that seems honest, naïve, and compelling. In the process, he whines, asks odd questions, and creates an accepting and adaptive character, whose survival is entirely plausible.
Figure 4: Luc Roeg sometimes look like an infant and other times a young man. Walkabout seems to squeeze him through a hole in time.
David Gulpilil’s aboriginal boy is a revelation. Sequences that show him hunting and tracking are real, shocking, and exciting. Born in Maningrida, Arnhem Land, it is likely that he knows these skills from childhood; maybe not, who knows. But the raw physicality of his presence, his smart, honest laughter, and his confidence together entirely deliver Roeg’s critique of the mismatch between Anglo-culture and the landscapes of the Australian continent. Gulpilil’s performance is magnetic. He would go on to be among the most impactful and important actors in Australia. This is no surprise.
Figure 5: David Gulpilil delivers a strong, honest, and physical performance surrounded by the stunning wildness of the outback and restrained performances of his co-actors.
Jenny Agutter (just off the set of The Railway Children) is given the hardest and most memorable role of all. As a bland English automaton girl, her position is to be truly ignorant of local conditions and culture (at one point shouting at the aboriginal boy: “We’re English! English, do you understand? This is Australia, yes? Where is Adelaide?”). On the other hand, as a tough, adaptive, single-minded young woman, she carries her brother from the death site of her own father through the desert, to find water, and struggles to keep them both alive; the physicality and confidence of her performance is an intimidating feminist message.
And as an emerging woman, Agutter must play somewhere between real engagement with the man she has met in the desert and a cold and chilling distance. Roeg’s camera lingers on Agutter in a way that is erotic and innocent at the same time. It’s certainly a little disturbing now, but for this viewer as a ten-year old, it was… a revelation.
Figure 6: Jenny Agutter – around 18 when the film was shot – holds the center of the film, embodying the contradictions around which Walkabout revolves.
The tangle of contradictions
This mismatch and these contradictions, embodied in Agutter’s girl, are what make this film tick, and what make it a children’s movie, in a sense, despite is raw brutality and erotic sophistication. Roeg intends a timeless parable and a puzzle, without a resolution. In Walkabout we get something deeply political and profoundly sexual, but also a kind of tale to which kids can’t but be drawn.
As evidence, consider that the screenplay is more pointed, obscure, and complex than its literary source material. In James Vance Marshall’s original 1959 novel, the children are uninterestingly American. They survive a plane crash, and are rescued by an aboriginal. Roeg prefers his arrangements more entangled. In his Walkabout, he makes the children English, progenitors of the continent’s original colonialism. And he strands them in a way far more bizarre and more closely moored to the plot of the landscape; the geologist self-immolates, presumably in the aftermath of failed speculative mining, which is highlighted as the film ends in a failed mining site. Roeg knew what he was about. Nothing in the film is an accident.
But much of it remains a mystery.
Figure 7: The aboriginal boy sketches rock art while the white boy and girl begin to wear body paint. None of it is interpreted.
Roger Ebert once said of Walkabout that, at bottom, it was about “isolation in proximity” and the limits of communication and understanding. It’s hard to top that assessment. There is utter incommensurability between the worlds that overlap and collide here. The movie provides no epiphanies for its characters, moreover, no breakthroughs of understanding. Roeg is suggesting that the colonial gap across which our violent lives collide may be impossible to leap.
Figure : Can today’s kids find themselves in the lives of these strangers. I think so.
But for 100 minutes, with effectively no dialogue to speak of, the encounter of that mystery is a visual poem. And despite the darkness and violence of the film and despite (better, BECAUSE of) the naked sexuality of its themes, this film is good for early adolescents. Indeed, if you compare this to the “charged” adolescent tripe we usually expose pre-adults to (and here I mean both J.D. Salinger and Twilight!), Walkabout’s impermeability, rawness, and sexual wonder may be good medicine.
I’d put this film in front of any self-respecting 11-year old and be ready for a heck of a conversation. Walkabout should make any viewer uncomfortable, and such an experience can and should be a family affair.
Chances Alexander will enjoy this film: Good.