Warning! Spoilers abound for both the film and the book!
As I have hinted before in other reviews, as a writer of mostly older features there is a poignancy in watching idiosyncratic talents pass on with a subtle feeling of their influence fade. For me, this certainly rings true of Nicolas Roeg whose talent felt so singular that it’s no surprise that he helmed David Bowie’s best film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). A true coming together of two unique beings creating a masterwork. Furthermore, there are few filmmakers whose style imprints other artists so strongly that they dedicate music to them. Please google E=MC2 by the band Big Audio Dynamite.
It has become so cliché to state that there is nobody else like certain filmmakers. However, it is extremely difficult to find a diverse range of equivalents. Particularly someone like Nicolas Roeg. This may be because Roeg is one of those rare filmmakers who creates such a singular style of tone piece. Visual poems which can create vivid impressions with the barest of narrative threads. His films appear to operate in the same way the mind thinks. Fractured and non-linear. He creates what the website Frieze considered “in search of a truth about the discontinuities of memory and perception”.
Such a quote is especially true of Walkabout. Roeg’s 1971 survival film set in the Australian outback centres itself on two white schoolchildren, who are left to brave the elements after a traumatic event leaves them stranded in the wilderness. Based on the 1959 book by James Vance Marshall, Roeg excises certain plot elements of the novel and crafts something more likened to an elliptical poem.
Set in Australia and filmed with more than one eye on its colonial past, Walkabout is a dazzling, rapid mosaic of lost innocence and distorted communication within the ever-changing civilised world. Roeg’s films often had his characters placed within a deeply foreign or alien territory, with the mosaic editing often dislodging the character’s perspective and placing them within an entirely different view. Walkabout is effective for this reason. Filled with jarring contradictions, flashbacks and flashforwards, the film clashes urban modernism with the fading, near otherworldly presence of the Aborigines.
In the same way, Roeg’s editing managed to fuse grief and love into one inseparable union in Don’t Look Now (1973). The same goes here with the loss of childhood innocence and the impending unavoidable presence of adulthood, told through innocent glimpses of sensuality and the tactile melding of the urban and the outback. The lost children: dehydrated and thirsty, ask The Aboriginal Boy (David Gulpilil) who discovers them where they can find water. Due to the language barrier, the request falls on somewhat deaf ears.
The Girl (Jenny Agutter) believes that the request she’s made can’t be made simpler. The difficulty in communication is clear, and yet, the moment also highlights an element of naivety, that these schoolchildren are frustrated that the boy cannot understand them, but at no point do they themselves try and understand the boy. That their belief in their native tongue and mannerisms is not understood or universal, therefore the situation becomes almost hopeless, is a telling and mutating point throughout the film.
The film displays rich contradictions and cultural similarities in almost every scene. A battery-powered radio depicting what is happening in the urban world is heard on the soundtrack while the camera scans across the open dry desert. The chopping of meat at a butcher’s is crosscut with the indigenous boy cutting and preparing a kangaroo. The film’s narrative is bookended by the deaths of two male characters. Both from two very separate worlds, and yet, the film frames their passing almost as symptoms of the same syndrome. As if both have finally succumbed to the all-encompassing, overwhelming dominance of what we consider civilisation.
Many scenes have characters lying deep within the frame, making them part of the naturalistic and exotic environment. As a film Walkabout still feels relevant because even 50 years on it manages to highlight that even when our basic needs are so often the same, we still find ourselves opposed by our cultures and how easy our connections are lost with our fading innocence and ignorance.
As Roeg worked as second-unit director on the classic epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a film like Walkabout becomes even more fascinating as another English director as controller of the complicated colonial conflict. Both the film and book of Walkabout highlight the death of an Aboriginal boy so that the well to do English children can go back to what is observed as modern civilisation. The film’s reasoning for the event is markedly different from the book and manages to make the ties feel even more fraught. Such conflict is familiar to many Australian films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Wake in Fright (1971) or more recently The Proposition (2005).
This train of thought is not a negative one, more something to consider. Roeg’s splintered dreamy take gives considerable weight to the film. Artists become pioneers as well as wardens of culture and history. And Walkabout’s entry to the cultural sphere highlights the fight of our advances against the costs. Roeg telling this story allows us to observe the exotic nature, as well as influence future British filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan. Despite this, Walkabout’s thematic elements, as well as the recent passing of Roeg, not only remind one of the brevity of different narrative approaches but also where we may or may not be with different storytellers. This viewing of Walkabout with all its visual splendour made me wonder how a film like this would be viewed and approached through indigenous eyes.
READ MORE: Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Blu-ray Review
This special edition holds an absolute wealth of special features, including Audio Commentary with Roeg’s son Luc who plays “White Boy” in the film, as well as an interview with filmmaker Danny Boyle about Roeg’s individualistic filmmaking. An interview with Jenny Agutter has her reminding herself just how off the cuff filming was. The extras also have two brief conversations with Roeg himself, with one clip amusingly detailing how Edward Bond’s script was only 14 pages long with Roeg explaining how he had to pad the screenplay for American investors.
Despite having features involving most of the principal cast, Roeg himself, and even Si Litvinoff the film’s producer, there are no features involving David Gulpilil, something that could have possibly provided even deeper insight into the film and its themes. It is worth stating however that this is still a quality disc with the film itself given a rich and detailed remaster. Nicolas Roeg spent 20 years as a cinematographer, yet it is the chopping of images that we remember him for. Transfers like this one do well to remind the viewer just how skilled an operator Roeg really was.
Walkabout is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 31st August from Second Sight Films.