Nicolas Roeg Retrospective: ‘Walkabout’ BFI Cast & Directors Screening

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Walkabout (1971)

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Written by Edward Bond

Australia, 1971

There are two words, two unencumbered English words that are guaranteed to reduce a certain generation of heterosexual Englishmen to quivering wrecks, and those two words are Jenny Agutter. She began her film career not in The Railway Children but in the first film solely directed by Nicolas Roeg (the authorship on Performance is still under debate), a hugely influential figure on European and American cinema (paging Mr. Soderbergh) whose visionary contributions to the art form have been admired and echoed across the globe. In a recent Sight & Sound article editor Nick James  made a convincing argument for the 1970’s UK cinema being amongst the most intriguing and resonant of the past century, arguing that sandwiched between the free love and civil responsibility of the Sixties and the Social Realist backlash against Thatcher and unfettered capitalism in the eighties there resides a brief period when British celluloid fully embraced a host of new possibilities and subjects, an embrace of classical ‘culture’ in terms of literature and biography,  a sense of magic and the transcendent, the fantastical and uncanny that is prevalent throughout the effervescent work of Ken Russell, Nicholas Roeg, Michael Reeves, Lindsay Anderson and the quite literal abominations of the Hammer horror studio. The article was evidently commissioned to accompany a month-long season of Roeg’s films that the National Film Theatre are screening at cultural epicentre of London’s South Bank, the centrepiece of which was a pristine screening of Walkabout with a cast and director interview to follow.

A young English girl (Agutter) and her 7-year-old brother (Luc Roeg, son of the director) are driven out to the Australian wilderness by their father, a prominent Sydney businessman. After preparing an impromptu picnic she is horrified to realise that her father has produced a pistol and is taking shots at her brother. Rushing to cover the two children are spared the distressing sight of their father torching the car and shooting himself, leaving the duo abandoned in the vast antipodean wilderness. As the couple make a frantic trek back to civilisation they strike up a companionship with an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) whom is traversing a vision quest of his own. Infused with a allegorical affectation the film debates the dyad of nature and civilisation, seemingly exploring the human animal species curious relationship to these opposing factors,  as our civilisations have clustered together in vast asymmetric megalopolis have we lost an essential relationship to our environment and our habitat?

This is the Australian outback rendered as a pre-fall Eden, an elemental realm teeming with a bizarre menagerie of unusual reptiles, exotic avians, extrinsic insects and vivid fauna. A sense of alchemy and myth shimmer on its surface, as the children’s odyssey into the wild pelagic vista continues the very trappings of the modern world erode and dwindle, like a fading dream. As these tiny figures inch slowly through a panorama of landscapes that seem alien and otherworldly (a visual motif seen frequently in Roeg’s work) a judicious use of crash and reverse zooms mark a hallucinatory tone, although some of the editing  juxtapositions – a kangaroo being speared is spilt with a butcher lacerating meat back in Sydney – are a little blunt and obvious, even as they herald the emergence of Roeg’s trademark use of fractured narratives that are so compelling in the likes of Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing and The Man Who Fell To Earth.

When the Western children collide with the aboriginal man-child they react as if an extraterrestrial has landed, curiously not with any fear but wonder and excitement, as their saviour and guide corrects their path home. Ancient racial memories are rekindled as the boy displays a parade of skills long lost to the preeminent tribes of our species – hunting, divining for water, medical treatment against the elements, tribal dancing as courtship –  The film blends in some extant episodes which simply don’t work – an aside detailing the exploitation of the native people and their cultural artefacts by the White settlers seems redundant, worse still a scene with a group of European scientists conducting atmospheric tests feels like it’s escaped from a Benny Hill sketch – but the main narrative strand of the youngsters odyssey is quite remarkable and almost unique in its alchemically intensity, at least until Terrence Malick’s debut hit cinema screens two years later. Danny Boyle evidently lifted much of his visual arrangements from 127 Hours from the film, particularly to my eye the intrinsic colour scheme of those crystalline blues and dusty oranges that seethe on-screen in a fashion that provokes a dry throat in the audience. A marriage of Roeg’s anthropological eye and a clutch of naturalistic performances, Walkabout is a particularly potent ocular elixir.

The post -screening interview and Q&A was quite a sober affair, but Film Critic host Mark Salisbury did manage to coax out some interesting anecdotes and recollections from Jenny Agutter, Roeg senior and Roeg Junior. The film’s production in one sense mirrored the fictional journey as a tiny crew also struck out into the bush, photographing the tale in sequence as the director conjured each scene on a day to day basis from a parched and depleted script. In a step away from the novel on which the film was based Roeg insisted on removing any names from the characters to add to his mythic intentions, the ages of the two leads were also deemed to be perfect as Agutter was sixteen when the film was shot and therefore ideal for a vision of potential motherhood for the boy, perhaps with Gulpilil as a surrogate for their deceased father.

To effectively mark the transition from civilization to wilderness Roeg explained that he needed to give the film a dramatic shock – the attempted homicide and suicide of the father – to convincingly appropriate the shift from one realm to another. One questioner praised the remarkable sound design of the film, leading the director to embark on an illuminating discussion on the nature of film sound on a wider scale, explaining that an audience would immediately absorb the tensions of a scene during the silent era purely on the strengths of the image and the events within the frame. With the arrival of sound you can suggest ideas and communicate atmosphere non-diagetically, and layer a film with a second varnish of themes and suggestions that can strengthen or question its visual perplexity. Overall the making of the film was an adventure for them all, its an ideal companion piece to both Peter Weir’s eerily magical Picnic At Hanging Rock or Philip Noyce’s historically shaming Rabbit Proof Fence, as Nicolas Roeg’s premiere picture is an astonishingly thaumaturgic triumph.

John McEntee

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