Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Nicolas Roeg’s songlines… Walkabout (1971)

The last time I watched this film was on a small black and white portable and there was a little less Jenny Agutter.

Walkabout was cinematographer turned director Nicolas Roeg’s second film and it is as minimalistically expressive as any of his later psychological dramas. A genuinely stunning visual accomplishment, it juxtaposes the Outback with both the external and internal civilised world to raise bold questions about the nature of man as well as communication.

In full colour on a flat screen it is a luscious, immersive experience and there are at least five more minutes of Jenny Agutter, of which more anon…

The viewer is almost overwhelmed by images of vast natural panoramas, endless deserts of crumbling red rock and sun-bleached sand all under an open-ended sky of wispy clouds shot through with blinding solar rays. It’s as if we’re all as lost as the main characters, trying to endure and to retain our civilised connections.

Jenny swims free
Surely the famous five minutes of nudity (now restored after the initial censorship) in which Ms Agutter swims totally free of inhibition, is as much the representation of liberation from the constraints of normally as anything else. Does it have to be five minutes? Well no…  but so many of Roeg’s shots are just that bit too long or that bit over-repeated… this is no easy-watching travel brochure but a challenging exposure – life in the raw (sorry…) with plenty of tooth and claw…

Walls give way to wilderness...
The story begins in Sydney with walls, huge glass buildings and a well-ordered society running on rails, wheels and conformity. In the well-to-do apartment of a business man (John Meillon), we see his wife preparing the evening meal in preparation for the family’s return. Their eldest daughter (Agutter) learns elocution at her school – they are English and must maintain their social tones.

Father looks out at his young son (Luc Roeg) and teenage daughter as they swim in the apartment’s pool: a glimpse of their well-cushioned lifestyle but is there just a hint of something more in his gaze?

A little while later, the three drive out far into the outback for a picnic. The children play and listen to the radio with its distant, false promises of civilisation. Suddenly there’s a shot and father starts shooting at the children, they hide behind rocks and begin a desperate crawl to safety… By the time the girl has gone back, her father has torched the car and shot himself: modern man driven mad by animalistic conflict…

She calmly takes her younger brother and begins a confident walk to get help and to return to society but it’s not to be that simple… they’re further out than they know.

The girl stays calm and for a while you think she’ll be resourceful enough to take them free but, lucking across a small waterhole they run out of options… sacred and tired they lie in wait hoping for something to happen.

They are seen by a 16-year old Aboriginal youth (David Gulpilil) who has been sent into the desert as part of his rite of passage from youth to manhood.

He all but ignores them but, seeming not to speak English, responds to the boy’s miming and shows them how to dig deeper into the mud to find more water.

From this point on the three become attached and follow the young man’s journey through the unforgiving terrain…

It’s a strange journey with their childlike interactions, the girl’s burgeoning sexuality and reserve, offset against the young man’s desire to prove himself the hunter he has to be. It’s funny and deceptive.

Roeg throws in a seemingly random episode in which a group of Italian scientists set up weather balloon experiments some way off in the sandy flats. Amidst all of the calculations the men stare lustily at the lone woman whilst her boyfriend concentrates on the science. Possibly Roeg’s tip of the hat to Fellini and another indication of the fragile demarcation between rational humanity and instinct.

A weather balloon is let go in petulant frustration and sometime later finds its way to the young group briefly joining the ever-present buzz of the girl’s radio as a reminder of the ordered, frenetic world out-front… The boy remembers that his father said the battery life should be 400 hours, maybe it will be…

The trek continues past wilting lizards, a strange procession of the young hunter, a boy with a seemingly endless collection of Dinky toys in his satchel and the young woman carrying an improvised parasol.  It’s now a grand adventure and when they find a big rock pool they all dive in with Roeg’s camera spending those long minutes focused on Jenny Agutter’s fluid swimming style. This is not the end but a high point of their freedom.

Civilisation gets closer and closer and at one point a white woman from an Aboriginal settlement recognises and says hello to the boy in English: he pretends not to hear or understand and looking back heads off to his two new friends who are totally unaware of how close they are to the world.

David Gulpilil
It’s clear he is enjoying this new found relationship and doesn’t want it to end at least not too soon. There are sexual undercurrents between him and the girl and neither is aware enough to act on them or even able to communicate their friendship.  When the boy finally does make a show, the girl cannot understand and can only think of escape from the wilderness… an absence of rules and clear etiquette.

I won’t reveal the ending save to say that whilst you can probably work out a number of routes forward based on traditional cinematic code but it won’t be any of them not strictly.

Dusty verdict: A genuine classic and looking better than ever in the new Blu-ray transfer. It has stood the test of time so well largely thanks to Roeg’s cinematography but also the way he keeps his narrative alive through jumps across space and time: the film is all things at once just like the tribal backgrounds of the boy’s songlines.

Events may not even be in “real time” they could all be the memories of Jenny Agutter’s character many years’ later? An aboriginal “songline” is also called a dreaming track after all. These were the paths followed by the mystical creator-beings who sang the world into existence. For more information I urge you to read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines...

There are great performances from the three leads – not just the classically-trained Agutter but also David Gulpilil and young Roeg (who is now a film producer of some note).

Miles away from nowhere
There’s also a commendable score from John Barry which subtly underpins the story throughout – the icing on the desert as it were…

Walkabout is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Movie Mail  and those Amazon people: don’t make do with an old VHS… it deserves the highest quality on the biggest screen!


  1. I liked this film a lot! Watched it for the first time yesterday. The final shots of JA with her hubby instantly reminded me of this sequence in another Roeg flick:


    1. I must watch that film again - I hadn't made that connection but it's two people displaced and in the wrong context. Other worlds...