Louis Nowra,
NSW: Currency Press, 2003
ISBN 0 86819 700 9
Au $14.95 (pb)
(review copy supplied by Currency Press)

Louis Nowra’s Walkabout is a succinct, very good, useful close reading of Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film even though it may not achieve its ultimate aim. Nowra, a versatile author of plays, novels and screenplays, writes about the film clearly, without academic jargon, and with enthusiasm. But he not only offers his interpretation of Roeg’s Walkabout, he defends its eccentricities against the film’s harsher critics. Although he doesn’t persuade me, he makes a good enough case that I was eager to see the film again – I saw it when it first came out – and my experience of it this second time around was significantly enriched by having read Nowra’s book.

Nowra writes that Walkabout changed the way he sees the Outback:

. . . I was stunned. The images of the Outback were of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting. (5)

Nowra details images that convey this impression, among them a giant glowing sun, teeming wildlife, breathtaking landscapes, a range of climes, an impossibly edenic swimming hole. And, of course, the intriguing, attractive, extremely likeable Aboriginal boy who leads the two lost white children back to civilization. Never mind that much of it is unrealistic. The trio would have had to traverse almost the entire continent to travel through dried-out desert lakes, craggy mountain ranges, and palm-lined semi-tropical valleys. Animals show up that don’t belong where we see them. Jenny Agutter could not have looked so robust and voluptuously nubile after weeks in the Outback.

And never mind that the romantic vision in Roeg’s film is not an Australian one. The film is the work of an English director, with two English children in the lead white roles, and is filmed from a script written by an English playwright based on an English novel. Nowra not only acknowledges all that, he gives plenty of space to Australian critics who resented the film for its Englishness. For Nowra, the film’s provenance is simply a fact, not an issue of cultural identity. (It might be an issue for the publisher: the book is part of a series called “Australian Screen Classics.”)

Although the film presents a romanticized version of the Outback, Nowra writes, it offers a critique of civilized Australia. It contrasts oppressive western civilization with the wilderness. It wants to suggest what we have lost. The children wear school uniforms, even on the picnic that precedes their enforced wanderings, while the Aboriginal boy needs only what amounts to a g-string, adorned with fly-attracting lizards he has speared. The Aboriginal boy hunts with a hand-fashioned spear, and only for food; marauding white hunters tear through the land on large jeeps shooting water buffalo wantonly with high-powered rifles. Apparently carefree Aborigines lazing about as if on a group picnic come across the children’s dead father, who had shot himself out of some kind of unexplained, but visible, despair. The breathtakingly beautiful pool where the girl swims nude contrasts with the rectangular seaside pool belonging to the apartment building where the children live before their adventure and where the girl lives afterwards.

Nowra is particularly sharp on the film’s erotic tension. He notes that with just a glance the girl reveals she is intrigued and repulsed by the Aboriginal boy’s lizard-laden, fly-friendly crotch. When the girl climbs a gum tree, the Aboriginal boy glimpses her white panties. Roeg lingers on a high-angle perspective of the tree to suggest that a fork and its two branches resemble legs and a vagina. For the most part, though, the tension is understated, and, for the Aboriginal boy, grows into love. The girl’s rejection of him – civilization apparently has corrupted her beyond redemption – hurts him fatally. Nowra interprets his extremely moving day-and-night-long dance as an expression of love and an act of suicide. (A suicide note would seem more apt: the boy’s body is found hanging from a tree.)

Where Nowra is most fun to read but least convincing is in his defense of what critics of the film found most difficult: Roeg’s anti-narrative, disruptive, intrusive techniques that remind one of Godard without the apocalyptic vision. Are you bothered by that wombat out in the middle of the desert? But Roeg, Nowra argues, is “showing the world from the almost magical perspective of a child”(36). Puzzled by the scene that shows the dead father sitting back up? You shouldn’t be, because this is a Biblical allusion, a hint of resurrection representing perhaps the girl’s wish, and it “is extremely moving”(36). If you are annoyed by the cross-cutting between the three children and the extended Aboriginal family, Nowra says you miss the point: Roeg “is illustrating how cinema, a pure idea of cinema that goes back to Eisenstein’s montage technique . . . enters another realm of the imagination where events and time can collide and interact in a way impossible in any other art form”(44). The sudden transitions from, say, desert to verdant valley? You, viewer, are too literal; the film is not a conventional story but a fairy tale. What about the stretch in the film where a white woman appears out of nowhere apparently to proposition the Aboriginal boy, a group of meteorologists engage in sexual buffoonery, while the children swim naked in the pool? “Roeg is subtly presenting us with a triptych of sexuality” (53) – lifeless commercial sex, carnival lust, and innocent eroticism. Nowra also offers justifications for the vision of nineteenth-century explorers riding camels in the desert, the turning pages while the white boy tells the Aboriginal boy a long story, and the freeze frames of the Aboriginal boy hunting.

Other readers might be persuaded by Nowra’s arguments in defense of Roeg’s aesthetic conceits, or might not need persuading at all. I remain unpersuaded but grateful to Nowra for making an impassioned but guileless case for the film. His book enabled me, on seeing the film again after thirty-plus years, to get as much meaning and as rich an experience out of it as I think possible for someone of my critical temperament. I couldn’t ask more of a close study of a film.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.
Created on: Friday, 30 April 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Apr-04

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →