I was often disappointed that Australian films were available overseas but not here. It is strange is it not for films like 'Max Max' and 'Picnic At Hanging Rock' to be available on most markets save Australia?
The release of 'Walkabout' redresses that with some flair. This is the debut feature of Nicholas Roeg as director. He was mainly a cinematographer before this and he acts as that again for his film. The look and structure of this film is testament to his hand as director/cinematographer.
The story is simple. By a tragic incident, a 14-year-old schoolgirl and her six-year-old brother are stranded in the Australian desert. Their names are not known, they are simply 'the girl' and 'the boy' in the credits. They are played by Jenny Agutter and Lucien John. Agutter is the model of a well-spoken, well-mannered private school girl. Lucien John a mischievous young boy. They survive only because they stumble across a young Aborigine who is on 'Walkabout', a ritual ceremony where an Aboriginal male has to survive in the desert alone on his journey to becoming a man. David Gulpilil stars as this and without a single English word, he portrays the wide range of emotions needed for the part. The script is very short and there isn't a great deal exchanged; in fact it could almost be a short story says the commentary. In actuality, the story is unimportant. The cliche is that reaching the destination is unimportant, it's what happens on the trip there and that is the relationship between the three principals and each other and their environment. Agutter performance as a surrogate mother to her young brother is touching. It is perhaps fitting that they look as tidy and proper at the end as they do at the start even after their long journey.
The director/cinematographer Nicholas Roeg is at his zenith here. Even though many Australians will have seen numerous images of the Australian Outback, Roeg goes even further and presents a landscape that is mystical and even alien looking. The camera angles are often wide and then suddenly macro to focus on the wildlife. Clearly Roeg is fascinated by the Australian fauna as there are numerous close ups of insects, small animals and birds. It is easy to understand why foreigners have taken to this film. Roeg has a strong shooting and editing style, which results in a film with a most unusual look. He also interleaves the story and images with contemporary urban and Aboriginal vignettes in an effort to compare and contrast the different societies.
As much as the camera is in love with the Australian outback, it is even more focussed on lead actor Jenny Agutter. Perhaps it is the mores of the day however the camera does have an unusual affinity for the burgeoning sexuality of the lead. The commentary makes it clear that it is the goal of the film to include the sexual rites of passage for the characters played by Agutter and Gulpilil. Both of them on the cusp of adulthood and the interaction between them is confused and muted. Is that a metaphor for societal issues? That is not something for me to comment on.
This film is M15+ rated and the amount of female nudity and animals being killed and butchered would tend to warrant that. There are times when this is not an easy film to watch with the strong images of animals in their final death throes.
The transfer is 1.66:1 non-anamorphic. It's not written as such however that's what the frame measures out to. Firstly I'll preface any comments with the fact that this is a 30-year-old film and it isn't a big budget production.
Firstly you'll notice that the transfer is annoyingly blurry and murky. This tends to affect distance shots the most with the worst example being some four-legged animals in the distance. It is initially hard to tell whether they are horses or camels. When the frame pulls closer, you see it's a camel.
There are some instances of frame damage although it is relatively uncommon. There's also some vignetting which is odd as it's reasonably rare on most films (vignetting is darkness in the corners of the frame usually due to lens choice). There is also instances of the borders fringing with coloured patterns ie. black lines on a light border resulting in colour bleed.
It may be my imagination but the image does tend to get better or at least stabilise as the film progresses. Perhaps it is your minds' eye becoming attuned with the transfer as the cinematography is able to make its impact INSPITE of the relatively poor presentation.
I would note that Sydney looks a bit strange circa 1970.
There is a single Dolby Digital 2.0 track at 224k/s although it is essentially mono. Three aspects - vocals, score and environment, dominate this film. The intelligibility is good with a consistent volume and tonal quality. You are listening to either Jenny Agutter or Lucien John. Agutter speaks very clearly with a clipped English accent and is always clear. John sounds like a six-year-old English boy, not always clear and perhaps unnecessary for every word to be understood.
The score is something else. It is by John Barry - yes, the 'James Bond' John Barry. It is an atmospheric, mystical and potent score that is a perfect match for the film. It is not well served by the limited quality soundtrack which is typical of the era. It is a hollow and has an odd timbre however it is a testament to John Barry's writing ability to overcome this.
The environment is added after with limited and obvious additions of animals and wildlife sounds. There are no subtitles.
Extras are limited but of good value. There are two trailers, one short and one long, The short is mysterious and doesn't give away much. There's an essay review by eminent critic Roger Ebert and a profile on Nicholas Roeg (seemingly from Cinemania 97 and the IMDB respectively), There's also trailers for two contemporary Australian films, 'The Bank' and 'Mullet'.
The best extra is the commentary from director/cinematographer Nicholas Roeg and lead Jenny Agutter. This is done in parts as Roeg and Agutter are never in the room at the same time, rather Roeg talks for a bit, then Agutter. This commentary makes the feature much clearer with pertinent issues addressed by both. To understand the attraction of the camera to the lead, one must really listen to the commentary.
I would note some oddities. You are greeted by the Fox 20th Century fanfare as this was a Fox picture originally. The American release is a Criterion copy with an aspect of 1.77:1 - different from the 1.66:1 we have here. The commentary is identical according to sources.
The transfer is very good for its age. If it is a true representation of the current state of the original print, then that is all one can ask for. The audio is also of the same quality. The extras are excellent and useful. The DVD presentation is classy and refined. I was not expecting something as restrained as this from Madman (those Anime fiends!).
This is a great film, a film that I cannot adequately describe. What it is about is something that will be different for everyone. The film ends with two tragedies of a different nature after starting on that note. It is one of those films that will linger with you long after you've seen it.