Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout…An Australian Masterpiece

November 28, 2018
On the passing of British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, we celebrate the director’s 1972 shot-in-Australia classic, Walkabout.

Walkabout (1972) is a freaked-out, elliptical and deliriously bizarre wonder that director/cinematographer Nic Roeg sandwiched between his debut outing with Donald Cammell, Performance (an insane slab of late sixties arcana starring Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and James Fox), and 1973’s spookily psychopathological Don’t Look Now, which still stands as the filmmaker’s most famous and acclaimed work.

Walkabout, however, is something else altogether. Talk about a narrative flip-out –this fascinating curio comes from that exhilarating early 1970s window when “art film” was not a pejorative term in mainstream moviemaking and the burgeoning script “industry” had yet to spread its three-act, hero’s journey, what-makes-a-good-script narrative cancer through most English-language screenwriting.

Nicolas Roeg on set.

Probably financed due to the “lost in the wilderness” genre that burned bright in the early 1970s, Walkabout is the story of two English schoolkids – the luminous Jenny Agutter and the director’s seven-year-old son, Luc Roeg (“My dad didn’t want an actor – he didn’t want a performance. It had to be as natural as possible. So we did it as a family unit, meaning it didn’t feel like I was being taken off somewhere”) – stranded in the Australian desert after their old man (local legend John Meillon in a terrifying cameo) tries to kill them before blowing his brains out in a profoundly unsettling scene. They hook up with an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil in his debut, star-making performance) and go on a journey full of surrealism, living-off-the-land ultra-violence, unrepressed (though unrequited) teen carnality, and bizarre asides to other seemingly unconnected storylines.

Famed shooter Nic Roeg (he did second unit work on Lawrence Of Arabia, and shot scenes on Doctor Zhivago) had a true mastery of the cinematic frame, and some of the best lensing of our flora and fauna can be found in Walkabout. Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil are gloriously pubescent and the film makes full use of their beautiful flesh, with nakedness, body parts in shameless close-up, and much lolling around in nature’s fecundity. “Nic wanted the scene in which I swam naked to be straightforward,” Jenny Agutter told The Guardian in 2016. “He wanted me to be uninhibited – which I wasn’t. I was a very inhibited young woman. I didn’t feel uncomfortable about the intention of the scene, but that doesn’t make you feel any better. There was no one around, apart from Nic in the distance with his camera. No lights, nothing. Once he’d got the shot, I got out of the water and dressed as quickly as possible. I don’t think people were as obsessed with nudity back then as they are today.”

Luc Roeg and Jenny Agutter in Walkabout.

The film is dementedly, shamelessly, unrelentingly symbolic and is a sobering reminder (boy, do we need it right now!) that film is a visual medium and not just a vehicle for dialogue-driven exposition. “Walkabout is a classic film about Australia, if not a classic Australian film,” writes curator, Paul Byrnes, on The National Film & Sound Archive’s Australia Screen website. “It was made with American money, from a script and a novel by English writers, by an English director using mostly English actors, but it is intensely engaged with the Australian landscape and a metaphysical idea of what Australia is – or was. The film’s influence on aspiring Australian filmmakers was immense, but it is probably fair to say that it was largely in visual terms. No-one had quite shown Australia this way on film before, as a primordial, original landscape, a place where it was (according to the film) still possible to touch the primitive and the pure.”

Along with Ted Kotcheff’s brutal 1971 classic, Wake In Fright, Walkabout is the most essential film about Australia made by an outsider, and is one of the key works from a filmmaker who always viewed the medium as art, and not commerce. Nicolas Roeg was a true stand-alone, and Walkabout showcases him at his most ethereal, artful, and uncompromising. “I don’t look back on any film I’ve done with fondness or pride,” Roeg once said. “I look back on my films and on the past generally…I can only use the phrase, ‘Well, I’m damned.’”

Comments

  1. Jim Dunwoodie

    What the heck is “a vehicle for dialogue-driven exposition.”? The term is not self explanatory. Does it mean, a poorly produced, badly directed, woefully shot motion picture, where the only remotely functioning element of the production is the dialogue? Or does it mean the sound crew were in control of the shoot? – As if!
    The term might be more appropriately applied to theatrical plays, so are you thereby implying that they are an inferior art form to cinema?
    Or perhaps you are suggesting something completely other. But why then blame dialogue? Is “Citizen Kane” lessened by the actors speaking their lines? Or “Once Upon the Time in the West’” or “Gone With the Wind” or any John Ford or Michelangelo Antonioni film, indeed Jean Luc Godard; is the dialogue in any of their films a detraction?
    If the issue is a failure of the visual elements, surely it makes sense to criticize the motion picture in those terms, rather than portray the failure (as you assess it) as tied to a related, but distinctly separate artistic aspect?

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