Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) is a loosely wrought and meandering (in the best sense of the word) fable about cultural interrelationships, mutual dependencies, and barriers. It’s also about the initiation of three young individuals—a 17 year old girl, her little brother, and an aboriginal adolescent—into both the natural and human worlds. The girl and her brother live in a posh apartment building in a large Australian city. When they’re waylaid in the outback—their father takes them along when he goes to look at geological formations, he tries to shoot them, and then sets his car afire and shoots himself (the reasons are unclear)—they begin wandering in the desert. The aboriginal boy, on his walkabout, falls in with them and shows them how to find water, to kill prey for food, and to survive. The film often contrasts the divergent backgrounds of the white children and the aboriginal boy. He’s aware of the differences, as are they. The plot is so loose that often consecutive scenes do not entirely follow logically on each other. The children simply wander. They develop a friendship. They become more comfortable, more able to make their ways in the outback. Then they stumble across a white settlement, and it’s over. The white children survive. The aboriginal boy does not.
There’s little dialogue in this film, which relies mostly on visual images of the children wandering, of the aboriginal boy hunting animals, of their time together in the darkness. A relationship seems to develop between the boy and the girl, but it ultimately goes nowhere. When she fails to respond to his advances late in the film, he commits suicide. The girl and her brother return to life in the city. The cultural divide that seemed to have been bridged collapses.
I find Roeg’s style as a director in Walkabout self-indulgent. Random shots of nature, of wilderness, of wildlife, signify the immersion of the city children in the natural world, suggesting a return to a primal environment where the distinctions of race and class and culture fall away. The white children cross empty barren wastes, clamber up steep cliffs, stare off into the vast distances. They are profoundly lost, isolated, these scenes suggest. Cut-in shots of images from the city, or of their father’s burning car—remind us who they are. The girl often listens to her radio, and the aboriginal boy learns to listen too. Sometimes these moments seem random, and I can’t entirely say that they work. They create a sense of disconnection, an unsettling rhythm that interferes with the otherwise pastoral tone. But that may be their purpose.
My feeling that the film depends a bit too much on beautiful images culminates in a prolonged scene in which the girl swims naked in an isolated pool. The aboriginal boy does not spy on her (though her brother does), and in fact the real voyeurs in the scene are those of us watching the film. What does it accomplish?—it shows the girl’s comfort in an entirely natural setting, her symbolic immersion in the natural world, where she sheds all the trappings of her civilized background (her clothes, her modesty) but mostly it shows us her beautiful naked body, in a tasteful way, of course.
Walkabout almost seems to suggest that the white children are unaffected by their outback experience. The aboriginal boy shows some signs of absorbing, adjusting to, white culture, while the white children seem to absorb very little of his culture. The final scene, however, leaves us wondering how untouched the girl and her brother really were.
Cinematography is supposed to be one of the strengths of this film, but the colors seemed washed out in the version I watched. I’d like to see a restored print.