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Walkabout
Australia 1971
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Running time 100 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


English-born Nicolas Roeg was a former film editor and cinematographer who had served his apprenticeship on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) amongst other films, most notably as co-director of the 1970 Mick Jagger cult classic, Performance, immediately prior to Walkabout, his first project as a solo director.

The story concerns an ordinary suburbanite, identified only as “The Man”, played by John Meillon, who takes his two children, a 14 year old girl (played by English television child actress Jenny Agutter) and 6 year son (played by Roeg's own son) in order to kill them. He fails and suicides instead, leaving the children to fend for themselves in the strange environment. Before long they encounter an Aboriginal boy, played by David Gulpilil making his screen debut, who is undertaking a “walkabout” as part of his coming-of age initiation. For a brief time they become companions as he leads them back to the safety of their own people although the encounter has unforgettable repercussions for both adolescents.

The script was by Edward Bond, an English playwright who had never even been to Australian and who derived it from a novel by James Vance Marshall but the main credit for the success of the film must go to Roeg who had some knowledge of Australia from being a camera operator on the 1960 British-made old school pastoral drama, The Sundowners. His evocation of the “strangeness” of the landscape which so alienated our English forbears and which separated them so definitively from the Aboriginal inhabitants, is brilliantly realized. Whilst much of this is achieved in purely visual terms, Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil are both excellent in portraying the at-first tentative but disorienting and disturbing relationship between the two young people.

As with the Canadian Ted Kotcheff's screen adaptation of Wake In Fright which was released the same year, "outsiders" seem to be much better suited to confront what are essentially spiritual issues than we are ourselves, perhaps because Australian film-makers tend to be resolutely urban creatures and so see the landscape more distantly and romantically as would Peter Weir, the local director most inclined to such matters, with Picnic At Hanging Rock in 1975.

Forty years after its release Walkabout remains one of the finest films about the heart of Australia, and, in particular, the essentially European civilization that clings to its periphery.

 

 

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