You know you’re watching a good actor if you miss him whenever he’s off-screen.
And so it was with Adam Driver, the goofy, 29-year-old hipster sex symbol from HBO’s hit series Girls, who plays a supporting role in the Venice competition entry Tracks (shown to the press on Thursday).
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Director John Curran’s film tells the true story of Robyn Davidson, a restless young woman (played by rising Aussie star Mia Wasikowska) who trekked 2,000 miles across the Australian desert in 1975, accompanied only by her dog and four camels that she trained herself.
Driver plays Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who met up with Robyn periodically, and, according to the film, loved her in spite of—or perhaps because of—her fierce independence and refusal to let him or anyone else intrude on her journey.
The film is lovely to look at, with cleanly framed, golden-hued widescreen images of desert scenery so evocative you practically taste the dust. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit dull.
Curran’s restrained, slightly detached classicism worked nicely for his 2006 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, a story of slow-building romantic love borne of respect rather than passion. But in Tracks, Robyn’s commitment to the trek borders on fanaticism, and the material all but cries out for a director capable of narrowing the focus and bringing us inside her obsession (Jane Campion comes to mind).
As subtle and skillful an actress as Wasikowska is, she’s a naturally reserved performer; in a film like this, with Robyn spending most of the running time trudging alone and in close-up, she needed to be pulled out of her shell a bit more to make the character compelling. Curran is content to stand back and give us a pretty travelogue, complete with an overly present score and some predictable developments (the arrival of hostile wild animals, a sand storm, encounters with kindly Aborigines) providing emotional cues.
That said, Tracks leaps to life whenever Rick stops by to snap photos and check up on Robyn.
With his floppy hair, gangly gait, over-ripe features and thick, sleepy voice, Driver looks like a character actor (which he certainly can be, as in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and the upcoming Coen brothers gem Inside Llewyn Davis), and his line delivery, at once slacker-ish and neurotic, makes him sound like one, too. But he has the charisma of a leading man, and his prickly chemistry with Wasikowska is by far the best thing in the movie. Rick gradually wins Robyn over with his good-natured chatter and oddball charm, but she doesn’t want to need him, so she pushes him away again and again. Driver registers his character’s conflicting feelings of hurt and protectiveness with such delicacy that you sort of wish Robyn would drop the attitude and let him stick around longer.
At the same time, I hope Driver resists the pull toward mainstream stardom if it comes; better to relish him in smaller, interesting roles than tire of him as the lead of mediocre Hollywood vehicles.