Review: Walkabout (1971)

Directed by: Nicholas Roeg | 100 minutes | drama | Actors: Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, David Gulpilil, John Meillon, Robert McDarra, Peter Carver, John Illingsworth, Hilary Bamberger, Barry Donnelly, Noeline Brown, Carlo Manchini

The gulf between man and nature and sexual awakening are the main themes in Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout”. The whole film breathes the conflict between technology and what we call “progress” against the pristine and innocent nature. Based on the book by James Vance Mitchell, this is the story of two English children, a girl and a boy, who apparently go on a picnic with their father somewhere in the wilderness of Australia. The father (Meillion) has apparently gone insane because suddenly he spins completely and starts shooting at his children, who are hiding from him. The father sets fire to the car and then shoots himself. This leaves the children to their own devices, without knowing exactly where they are. The girl, played by the newly grown up Jenny Agutter, tries to keep up the good spirits and takes her brother, played by Luc, the son of the director, in tow to return home. Ironically, both wear boarding school uniforms (although the girl’s skirt is very short, more on that later) and it is alienating to see them walking through a red desert like this. The culture shock is even greater when they cross the path of the Aboriginal (Gulpilil) and the three of them continue. The girl soon becomes obsessed with water, but has no way of communicating with the black boy to make it clear to him. Gradually more sexual tension comes into play between the girl and the Aboriginal, but here too misunderstanding dominates.

Nicholas Roeg was at the beginning of his career as a director with “Walkabout” and would immediately after this film make the formidable “Don’t Look Now”. However, “Walkabout” is not that good, although it remains a captivating and sometimes enchanting film. Dialogues are sparse and it is mainly nature that takes the lead. The endless deserts and landscapes that abound in Australia are shown in their ominous splendor. Overall, the atmosphere is meditative and melancholic. Even a relatively light-hearted scene when a tribe of Aboriginals find the burnt-out car and the radio suddenly comes to life has something gloomy and sad about it. Sometimes Roeg puts the symbolism very thick on top. Subtlety is therefore hard to find, which detracts a little from what he wants to say. Especially the way in which the girl’s short skirt and body are portrayed is quite voyeuristic and therefore falls short as a symbol of innocence and open-mindedness. The way in which entwined tree branches and stumps are mounted between images of the tension between the Aboriginal boy and the girl leaves little to be guessed about the intention. Slightly more subtle and therefore more powerful, the images of the naked swimming girl are interspersed with breathtaking hunting scenes when no kangaroo or lizard is safe from the fast Aboriginal and his spear or boomerang. The musical score of veteran John Barry is wonderfully atmospheric and knows how to convey the right emotions at the right time. Barry underlines his versatility, as he has, for example, also many of the James Bond films to his palmares. In it he also shows how to convert images of nature into beautiful musical sounds.

The story is actually very simple, but due to the combination of the method of filming and the unreal music, the whole gives several layers. All kinds of interpretations are possible and that makes “Walkabout” a special film. Because of the beautiful nature shots, it is especially advisable to watch in cinema format.

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