I had decided upon something serious this week for my film viewing, but Nic Roeg’s Walkabout is more dream-like than documentary. Though there’s a story, of sorts, to it, it’s more a state of mind or a state of being, that begins with a tragedy and ends with a double tragedy, all of which are handled in a low-key, emotionally neutral manner, reliant primarily on vibrant, surprisingly colourful and natural images.
Surprisingly, for a film that is essentially a three-hander (and in which the third of its central trio is not introduced until over a half hour into the picture), it has an incredibly young cast in which Jenny Agutter – fresh from her virginal success in The Railway Children – is the oldest, and she’s 17, playing what I’ve now learned is a 14 year old girl. David Gulpilil, playing the Aborigine boy (and miscredited as Gumpilil) was only 16, and playing his first film role, whilst Agutter’s younger brother was credited as Lucien John but was actually Director/Cinematographer Roeg’s 8 year old son, Luc, and was bloody good with it.
There are so many ramifications to this story that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. The ‘plot’ is minimal. John Mellion plays an unnamed man, married, wife and two children, an Englishman emigrated to Australia – Adelaide is mentioned once or twice – but seemingly determined to bring his children up as English, as identified by their straitened natures and the English-style school uniforms both wear (though Agutter’s skirt would have been considerably too short for the home country, even in 1970). For reasons unexplained, but which we may infer from his brief, silent scenes in the City, he goes mad. Driving his children into the Outback for ostensibly a picnic, he starts shooting at them: Agutter drags her brother into hiding. When they refuse to come back, he uses petrol to set the car alight and shoots himself in the head.
The two children set off across the Outback, Agutter keeping her brother from the reality of what has happened. They are utterly unequipped for life in the desert. Even when they find an oasis, dirty, muddy water that nevertheless refreshes them, it dries up overnight, leaving them helpless.
Agutter is gently insistent on their being English, and keeping up standards. Some of it is sensible precautions against the sun that is horrendous for their pale complexions, but there is the “We don’t want to look like tramps” aspect: Agutter retains her school hat and blazer throughout, and her tights until nearly halfway through the film, young John his full school uniform, cap, blazer, satchel, shirt and, incredibly, tie.
Whilst they’re stranded at the dried oasis, Gulpilil arrives over a sand-ridge. He is on what the pre-film title card has defined: In Australia, when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the WALKABOUT.
The English siblings are also on a Walkabout, except that their’s is not deliberate and they are not aware of it. That will dictate their end.
The Aborigine boy is lean and lithe. He is also practically naked, and well as richly, deeply black. He speaks no English, but talks in his native tongue. Agutter is immediately English with him, assuming that he MUST understand her, because she needs him to understand her. John, less inhibited by his background, is able to convey certain things by mime. He’s also not hindered by a nascent sexuality that creeps in between the slim, long-legged white girl and the near-naked black boy.
Roeg is never direct about that, preferring to let the camera do that part of the telling, supplemented only by a few shots of Agutter and Gulpilil’s faces, and by one of the film’s few cutaways to other folk: meteorologists in a not-too-distant part of the Outback, working on weather balloons etc., where the attractive blonde, who we very clearly see is wearing stockings and suspenders, is the overt object of every man’s attention.
Gulpilil leads the two children. There are occasional encounters between him and other white folk, though the boy and girl do not get to see these, each of which emphasise the gulf between the arrogant, intrusive white Australians and the Aborigines who are part of Nature in this inhospitable place.
Roeg foreshadows the tragic endings and amplifies this theme in the film’s most lyrical and controversial scene. Left by the boys at a beautiful, remote, rock-surrounded deep pool, Agutter takes to the waters and swims naked, turning and twisting in the water like a pale fish. The whole thing is beautiful, and not just because Agutter was (and still is) very beautiful, but because she has allowed herself to give in solely to the pleasure of the cold water over all her skin, free from expectations and reservations forced on her by the presence of others, or by her own upbringing. It is one of only two times Agutter is allowed to be completely natural.
And Roeg intercuts Agutter sliding through the water with Gulpilil, in his entirely different way as lithe and graceful, delicate and almost formal in his movements, which are dedicated to hunting: hunting and killing animals, kangaroo, with explicit spearing and dismemberment.
It’s after this episode that Agutter starts responding more openly to Gulpilil’s evident masculinity, and the film starts moving towards its climax. The Aborigine leads them to an abandoned farm, which at least provides the girl with the illusion of civilization: walls, roofs, rooms, shelter. He shows the boy a road.
He then paints his body with signs, decorates his face with a white clay mask that is initially fearsome. So it is to Agutter, who is on her own, washing, topless. Gulpilil dances, a strange creeping and leaping mating ritual dance. Agutter has been edging nearer to her sexuality, but she is still too young, too reserved, too restrained. She panics, running into another room, frantically twisting away as she struggles to get her school top over her wet torso.
Still Gulpilil dances. Agutter recovers her self-possession when her brother returns and she’s no longer alone, even though it’s already been clear even to those of us completely ignorant of such rituals, that the aborigine will not touch her, will not even enter the farm until she accepts him. Agutter doesn’t know that. She wouldn’t even know how to signal that acceptance if her sexuality hadn’t been scared right back down inside.
It goes on all day, under the sun. Gulpilil tires, drops the foliage he’s been wielding, lacks the strength to pick them up. To the English children, he’s become part of the landscape. Agutter has already brushed him away, plans to go on alone the next day. They sleep. His dance falters.
In the morning he’s not to be seen. Agutter automatically starts to lie: he’s gone home, that was his dance of farewell. Maybe by now she believes herself. But her brother knows better, knows that he’s dead, like their Dad. He leads her out back, to where Gulpilil’s body, the white clay markings cracked, ants already on his cold flesh, hangs from a tree.
Agutter shows no reaction to the death that she has caused, by not understanding, not communicating, not even trying to communicate, for it was his job to understand automatically. She brushes an ant from his chest, and then turns away, all practical and civilised, looking forward to plates and tables and knives and forks, sleeping in sheets, pop music radio, wearing her own clothes. She takes nothing of the Outback, of their survival, with her.
At the ‘town’ they discover, there is nothing for them either, a broken ruin, and abandoned mine town, a single, surly caretaker with no time for them.
I said there were two tragedies at the end of this film, didn’t I? The little boy disappears, and we are left to wonder about how this experience will affect him. But we have not finished with Agutter.
We’re back in Adelaide, another businessman, in suit and car, much younger than Mellion, returns to the same apartment block where the children’s family lived. In a lower floor apartment – the stratification of the block in age and status is deliberate – his wife is cooking at a stove. She reaches out for a cigarette, takes a quick drag. It is Agutter, older, maybe twenty-two. The businessman arrives, hugs her, starts talking about Office matters. After a moment, Agutter’s eyes go vacant and she tunes him out. He realises sheisn’t listening, asks her what’s wrong, to which she replies, nothing, and he resumes, and once again she tunes him out.
This is the girl who, for all her flaws and inadequacies and her inability to merge into her surroundings, survived her Walkabout, and came out of it with nothing. Now she has merged into her surroundings properly, become an Australian housewife. She will never say, do or think anything out of the ordinary again.
But in her daydreams she is fourteen again, and back at the rockpool, and all three are there and all three are naked, and there is an unforced joy and contentment between them that this woman will never experience again in her life, and that is unreal in her daydreams, an idealisation of what never happened. And that is so sad. With uncanny rightness, for it is so English a verse, as we watching this trio in their Eden, we hear A E Houseman’s words:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Walkabout was a commercial failure when it was released, but has always had critical acclaim. The scenes of Jenny Agutter swimming nude, and appearing topless, were treated as shocking in the press, fresh as she was from The Railway Children, in which she’d been the perfect English Rose, the lovely and innocent Victorian girl whose only male interest was in her Daddy: virginal Roberta strips off was the Press’s reaction in an era when the prurience wasn’t quite so overt. Agutter even said that she hadn’t realised just how much the camera could capture.
The scene has only become more problematic since, particularly since the Sexual Offences Act 2003 prohibited the distribution of sexual material featuring people under 18, which had the potential to drive the film underground, illegal to sell without a Certificate. But the BBFC decided the scenes were not ‘indecent’ and Walkabout was re-certified. (It would have been embarrassing if it hadn’t, given its inclusion in the British Film Institute’s 2005 list of ‘Fifty Films to see before you’re 14’.)
The film is on dodgier ground with the scenes of killing, dismembering and cooking animals. The depiction of inflicting pain or terror on animals had been illegal in Britain since 1937, but the film passed because, to quote Wikipedia, “the animals did not appear to suffer or be in distress”. And the fox enjoys the hunt as well, doesn’t he?
At the end of the day, Walkabout is, if it is about any one thing, the inability to communicate. Even between the two children: Agutter represses and lies, John is in a big boy’s adventure in his head. Neither communicate with the land where they live: once they reach a ‘town’, they turn themselves back into good, fully-uniformed schoolchildren as if they had never been anything else. Perhaps I’m wrong in speaking of three tragedies: the entire film is tragic in every moment.
But its reputation is justified, even with the hunting. I have never been to Australia, though I have cousins living there. I don’t doubt that Adelaide, if that is the city we see, has changed somewhat. The land behind and between is still the same. I would still like to see it, only from a safe distance, and not from a black Volkswagen Beetle. Not even with Jenny Agutter.