For me, the appeal of Walkabout was three-fold: the chance to see Jenny Agutter in one of her earlier roles, after enjoying her work so much on Call the Midwife, the fact that it would be a very different role from playing a nun for eight seasons, and the centralization of the sibling relationship between Agutter’s character (credited as White Girl), and her younger brother (White Boy, played by director, Nicolas Roeg’s, son, Lucien John).
When all is said and done, though, it’s the event that catalyzes their journey into the desert that has my head spinning. It’s a big deal, yet the film (intentionally) takes no time to process it. Brought to the middle of nowhere by their father for a picnic, White Boy is playing with a water gun when a real gunshot goes off. White Boy’s father is shooting at him.
You don’t know why he’s doing this. You don’t know why White Girl reacts by dashing to where her little brother’s standing and tackling him to the ground. She wants to protect him, of course, but think of all the other ways she could’ve reacted. How does she know there’s no hope trying to reason with her dad? How is she able to stay so outwardly calm about what’s happened?
Soon, out of necessity, the demands of surviving in the Australian outback take precedence but the movie never forgets, any more than the kids do, and there are moments when a sound on the radio will cause them to remember or the film will flash to that moment, and you’ll know they’re thinking about him. It’s a mature relationship, they have with each other – White Girl trying to prevent her brother from catching on to the trouble they’re in; White Boy asking questions in his own time, as he starts to put things together. What’s abundantly clear is how much they love each other. White Girl isn’t irritated. White Boy isn’t whiny, any more than is appropriate after spending days outdoors in the hot sun.
Eventually they meet a young man (Black Boy, as David Gulpilil is credited) on walkabout, a rite of passage for Aborigine males when they turn sixteen, who helps them find food and water (Roeg will often stop to take in the wildlife that lives in the Outback and even though her shoes are completely inappropriate, you can understand why White Girl keeps them on, despite the heel). Walkabout never smooths over the language barrier between them (it doesn’t even occur to White Girl to mime drinking water) but it doesn’t stand in their way either.
Roeg’s camera has a habit of lingering on shots (White Girl’s skirt or Black Boy’s nudity), turning them sexual. They are teenagers (and a big deal at the time was made because Agutter has a few scenes with full frontal nudity – all of the kids do) but while you’re not always sure what to make of these shots (are they exploitive or being honest?), they do reflect how social conventions fall away. Covering up and being embarrassed about your body doesn’t feel as important when you’re trying to stay alive, but what about afterwards, when you’ve returned to society?
Sound is extremely important in Walkabout, as well, whether it’s the digeridoo playing over scenes of the city or a choir turning the Outback into a religious experience. For most of their journey they carry a radio with them but it’s not only music that plays but programs about using the correct fork and other etiquette lessons. Even in the Outback the kids can’t escape the pressures to conform, but for a short time they’re able to know what it’s like to really live without material possessions, and they’re not unhappy.
Walkabout is available now from Umbrella Entertainment. The Blu-Ray is listed as region B, but I was able to play it on a region 1 player. Also listed on the web-site is an audio commentary but that wasn’t included.