Microcosmos and macrocosmos meet and make a terrific marriage in this Rousseau-tinged survival story, shot on location in Australia's Outback. Nicolas Roeg is the director: Serving as his own cinematographer, he takes in everything from insects burrowing into the Earth's crust to the red sky blanketing distant mountains. His surging adoration for the unspoiled environment, cruelties included, gives this film a full-blooded lyricism that transcends the thin, editorializing story about a pubescent white girl (Jenny Agutter), her little brother (Lucien John), and an Aborigine coming of age (David Gulpilil). In the setup, the Anglo kids' father strands them in the wilderness -- shooting at them and killing himself. Rather than depict this horrific act as one man's breakdown, Roeg and his screenwriter, Edward Bond (adapting a novel by James Vance Marshall), use it to epitomize the decrepitude of Western civilization. But Roeg works alchemy on the material once he sets the boy and girl adrift in sandy landscapes; the same dislocating photographic and editing techniques that depict city life as the seedbed for alienation make the Outback magical.
David Lean once confessed that the juvenile cliffhangers in Boy's Own Paper, the British kids magazine, had a "huge effect" on him. Roeg, who made his name as a cameraman on Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, turns Walkabout into a Boy's Own Paper adventure with a liberated-teen sensibility. He casts an awe-struck eye on the Aborigine's skill at hunting and carving prey for food, and at one point juxtaposes that bloody business with the girl luxuriating in a nude swim. His elegiac treatment of both the feral and the sensual justifies the A.E. Housman lines that close the film: "That is the land of lost content,/ I see it shining plain,/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again."
-- Michael Sragow
A new print of Walkabout, with about 10 minutes of footage deleted on its original American release, screens Friday through next Thursday, Jan. 3-9, at 2, 4:30, 7, and 9:25 p.m. at the Castro, Castro & Market. Tickets are $6.50; call 621-6120.