Criterion // 1971 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 10th, 2010
"That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again."
-- A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad
The gulf between director of photography and just director can often seem impossibly wide. Very few cinematographers make the leap to full-on directors in their own right, and those that do generally make a single film and then go back to filming other people's movies. The British director Nicholas Roeg might be the single best example of the successful transition from cinematographer to director. More impressively, he's done it with idiosyncratic material that refuses to pander to mainstream sensibilities. It all began with Walkabout, a narratively sparse tale of adolescence and civilization. Walkabout was an early Criterion release on DVD, but they've gone back to the well to bring fans a Blu-ray release with drastically improved picture and sound and some new supplements to boot.
One day a young girl (Jenny Agutter, Logan's Run) and her brother (Luc Roeg, the director's son) are taken for a drive by their father in to the Australian outback, where he torches the car and attempts to kill his children before succeeding in killing himself. Stranded, the children are in serious trouble, until they meet a young aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil, Australia) who helps them get food and water. Despite the language barrier, the trio survive in the outback until the children can be safely conveyed to civilization.
Walkabout doesn't have much of a plot. Aside from the violence that opens the film, there isn't much going on. The trio survive in the outback, there's some fumbling sexuality between the older children, and then they're back in civilization. From that tiny seed, Roeg coaxes a meditation on several topics.
At bottom, this is a film about human behavior. By taking relatively unformed children and placing them outside societal influence, Roeg hopes to show us how people behave. In that respect, the film is fairly utopian. Despite the communication problems, the trio get along just fine for the most part, living together in harmony. Roeg seems to be showing us that people are basically good, and, if they could only get away from the influence of civilization, they could live together without violence. It's not a perfect world, though, and the lack of communication eventually causes problems for the older children. Here Roeg is also commenting on the lack of communication, especially in adults, and how that causes much of sadness and violence in modern life.
Roeg has also produced a stellar film about the transition to adulthood. Without the prying eyes of the adult world, the Boy and Girl are free to discover their feelings for one another in a natural way. There is an innocence to their interactions that hints at the adult world of sex and responsibility, but they seem to be free of the corrupting influence of exploitation. Theirs is a relationship of relative equals, and without pressure they can see and explore each other free from guilt and the pressures of societal norms. Although their relationship is somewhat idealized, Roeg acknowledges that the transition from child to adult is not a simple one, and the relationship between the Boy and Girl is not without its problems.
Beyond all that, Walkabout is a love letter to the outback. Roeg marshals his considerable talents as a cinematographer to portray Australia's vivid (and varied) landscapes. He's absolutely willing to linger over the beauty of a sunset or water-soaked oasis, but not afraid to show the harsher, more dangerous side as well. There's a reason that Australia has a mostly urban population, and the dangers of the bush are clear in the film. As with the rest of the film, it's Roeg's talent for showing both sides equally that makes his portrait of the outback so compelling.
Walkabout is such a good film that Criterion decided to come back for a double dip. Their first disc was released in the early days of the format, and it shows. The first disc wasn't horrible, but the source wasn't pristine, and the compression technology hadn't progressed very far which meant the transfer had some noise and macroblocking issues. Most of those concerns have been alleviated with this Blu-ray disc. Criterion have taken this transfer from a new print, and although there are still a few bits of damage here and there, everything else is vastly improved. Saturation is fantastic, detail is strong, grain is appropriately filmlike. It's a grand improvement overall, even if a decades-old low budget film is never going to look perfect. The audio is similarly problematic -- the source isn't perfect but this lossless mono track preserves the voices with no noticeable hiss or serious distortion.
The thoughtful commentary with Roeg and Agutter, which discusses the film's production and reception has been ported over from the previous DVD. So has the longer of the film's two trailers. The disc now adds a pair of recent interviews, one with Agutter and the other with Luc Roeg. There's also an hour-long documentary on the remarkable career of David Gulpilil. The usual Criterion booklet contains a nice essay by Paul Ryan. The previous essay by Roger Ebert is somewhat missed, but it hasn't aged well and Ryan makes a great replacement.
Walkabout is not for the faint of heart. It features tasteful full-frontal nudity, children in danger, and scenes of David Gulpilil hunting and butchering wild animals. The film is also not for those looking for a strong plot. Not a whole lot happens in the film from an action standpoint, which could make it a rather boring film for some.
Walkabout is a classic bit of British cinema that heralded the arrival of a new talent in Nicholas Roeg. Criterion has now given the film the treatment it truly deserves with an updated audiovisual presentation and some interesting new extras. It's not a film for everybody, but for the cinematically adventurous, it's a must-see.
Walkabout is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG