Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 feature Walkabout opens with a close-up of bricks and mortar, shifting over to street and traffic. Beneath it blasts the sound of a didgeridoo, a musical instrument of the Australian Aborigines, reminding viewers that the buildings now standing in Australia haven’t always been there. What follows repeats the meaning embedded in that combination of sound and image, and expands it to the human soul. Scripted by Edward Bond, who made some controversial contributions to the London stage, this loose adaptation of James Vance Marshall’s novel follows a teenage English girl (Jenny Agutter) and her young brother (Roeg’s son Luc), playing characters listed only as “White Girl” and “White Boy,” as they traverse the Australian wilderness after their geologist father goes mad and attempts to kill them before committing suicide. Along the way, they meet a wandering Aborigine teen (dancer, musician, and actor David Gulpilil, in the first of many film roles) with whom they strike up a friendship in spite of their language barrier. That relationship allows them to find an Eden in a once-forbidding environment.
Roeg’s film contrasts Western corruption with native goodness, but it’s naïve by design, and ultimately concerned more with the way all innocence passes than with the politics and particulars of any single part of the world. The title comes from a ceremonial rite of passage observed by some Aborigines that sends boys off to fend for themselves before becoming men, and much of Walkabout hangs in the last moments of a state of grace. The children walk untouched through fields of forbidding poisonous creatures and stumble into an Eden. Roeg works less through plot and dialogue than images and editing, and the trio’s journey takes on a hypnotic quality as one lyrical sequence follows another. Gulpilil hunts what he needs to survive as the film flashes on images of meat being processed not far away in Sydney. Or to Agutter bathing as the sexual tension between the English girl and her new friend begins to mount. Or, as the film nears its conclusion, to white hunters carelessly, effortlessly gunning down game they don’t need. (Animal lovers should be forewarned that these sequences are not simulated.) The connections go unspoken, but they don’t need underlining.
In early efforts like Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth, Roeg came close to making films that felt more like dreams than stories. Walkabout comes closer than either, starting as a nightmare, shifting to an idyll, then ending up somewhere else entirely, somewhere that feels like waking up. Toward the end, the two English characters stand at the side of a road. Roeg offers a pregnant pause before they move from dirt to asphalt and take their steps back toward civilization; he treats the moment as both sad and inevitable. It’s a real road, but it’s also the path away from innocence they were always going to have to follow, as must we all.
Key features: A commentary with Nicolas Roeg and Agutter, and an hourlong documentary on Gulpilil’s career.