Film Review: Walkabout (1971) and I Start Counting (1969)

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For many years the BBC could be relied upon to broadcast some peculiar, esoteric film at about half-eleven every Friday and Saturday night. Although there seemed to be very little qualification for what was chosen for this time slot, most of the films that were shown tended to be from 1970s, and when watched just before bed had the effect depriving viewers of sleep, not so much because they were terribly scary, but because they warranted a great deal of contemplation after they had been watched. They were films that left a lasting impression on the viewer; and though not all of them were exceptional, most had the power at the very least to shock or unsettle.

Nowadays, the BBC can be counted on less and less to broadcast such uncompromisingly strange films, though occasionally it will refrain from repeating absolute cack like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and put on something that seems, by contrast, to have been made not only during another decade, but by a different species. This happened a few months ago, when by chance I happened to stumble across Walkabout (1971), a refreshingly slow-paced film starring Jenny Agutter, which turned out to be a paragon of the sort of feature that used to dominate the half-eleven time slot.

I knew upon watching the opening sequence that the film was going to be unusual. It begins rather ominously with a crackle of radio interference and the relentless droning of a didgeridoo, accompanied by a series of beautifully shot images though which the viewer begins to piece together the opening narrative. We see tall buildings in the city, the torrid Australian outback and a classroom full of schoolgirls—nothing especially sinister, and yet the way that these images have been presented creates a powerful sense of trepidation. A while later, we watch as a man drives his six-year-old son (Lucien John) and teenage daughter (Agutter) out of the city, with its swimming pools and brutalist buildings, and into the baron outback for a picnic. There, as his children play nearby, he suffers a momentary lapse of sanity, tries to shoot his son, then takes his own life by torching his car.

For the rest of the film, the girl guides her brother through the outback, keeping him out of trouble and making sure that he has food to eat and water to drink. Neither character displays a great deal of emotion. Instead, the viewer is kept at a distance from their sufferings, and as the film progresses we come to view the outback not as place of destitution, but as somewhere of breath-taking beauty inhabited by remarkable creatures and plants. Eventually, after days with very little food and water, the children are saved, in part, by the natural skills of a young aborigine boy, who in addition to acting as a playmate for the boy, strikes up a fond yet understated relationship with the girl.

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What follows thereafter (without giving too much away) is an enthralling adventure with moments of poignancy and subtle humour. The plot is sparse, but Nicolas Roeg’s direction and photography, as well as John Barry’s superb score, make every moment completely captivating. Most likely some viewers will read more into Walkabout than I have here on account of its powerful, vivid imagery; but I prefer to believe that it is simply a story of boy and girl who are abandoned in the outback. This seems like a sensible enough view to take, since it works on this level so well, and not quite as well as commentary on the fetters of modern life. Either way, though, it is an enduring celebration of nature and adolescence, which manages, quite remarkably, to be charming and unsettling in equal parts.

Before the credits roll, lines from Housman’s famous poem Shropshire Lad appear on screen. It makes for an affecting ending, and one that lingered in my memory for weeks after I saw it, leading me to seek out similar films, though to no avail.

That of course is the problem with all good things: they’re inimitable. However, the search did lead me to discover a similarly off-kilter little film, released a year before Walkabout, which also starred the talented Jenny Agutter, though in a very different role. It is called I Start Counting, and it concerns a 14-year-old girl named Wynne (Agutter), who while coming to terms with her sexuality discovers that her 32-year-old stepbrother (Bryan Marshall) may be guilty of a series of murders. Given the very British tendency to pretend that nobody under the age of sixteen, let alone a teenage girl, is capable of so much as thinking of sex, it is unsurprising that the film has been relatively ignored since its release.

Its lack of popularity is even less surprising when you discover that the teenage girl in the story is attracted to her stepbrother, and that the fact he may be a murderer is not enough to diminish her attraction. But to be clear, there isn’t anything particularly sordid about Wynne’s attraction: she is an innocent in a film in which innocence holds very little value, a bewildered virgin whose understanding of sex has been distorted by her unreserved friend Corrinne (Clare Sutcliffe).

Corrinne claims to have had sex seven times, a statistic that she is fond of repeating, particularly to Wynne. And yet for all her bravado, it seems that Corrinne is just as inexperienced as Wynne, if not more so. The relationship between the two girls is one of the most believable things about I Start Counting, for it so perfectly mirrors the sort of relationships in which teenage girls often seem to find themselves. Corrinne is not a good friend, but Wynne still spends time with her. She realises that she’s better off with her as a friend than an enemy, and seems to respect her to some degree, even if she doubts whether Corrinne is really as experienced as she claims to be.

Often, when the girls aren’t talking about sex, they’re spending time near the Common where the murders have been taking place. Wynne used to live on the common; now she lives in the new town of Bracknell, seen here as it was intended by the town planners, before the decay set in. Her childhood home, which was the scene of a recent tragedy, has fallen into a state of dilapidation. But Wynne returns there often, in part because she suspects that her stepbrother visits too.

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It is a terribly bleak film in many ways, though Wynne, as well as George, her stepbrother, add a great deal of charm to it. Their relationship is a very believable one and it is not difficult to imagine what Wynne sees in George. He is kind to her, he respects her, and unlike many of the characters in the film, he appears to have a moral compass. By no means does he seem capable of murder, and yet as the film progresses, the likelihood that he’s innocent begins to decrease substantially, until finally the viewer is left feeling as conflicted as Wynne.

I should say at this point that this is a fairly one-dimensional description of the film: by providing any further information I fear I’d only spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. All the same, I will say that I Start Counting is a thrilling film that, though not especially scary, has many shocking and disturbing scenes. Although it was released in 1969, it feels very much like a product of the 1970s, having been shot using a palette of grey and beige hues. It certainly evokes none of the optimism that we have come to associate with 1960s. It tells of a time of social and moral uncertainty, a time in which young women are advised not walk about by themselves.

The film’s title song, written by Basil Kirchin and sung by Lindsey Moore, is a poignant reminder that the central theme of I Start Counting is innocence, or more specifically Wynne’s loss of innocence. A breezy acoustic number, with a truly beautiful melody, it sounds as though it’s being sung by Wynne, and is all the more affecting as a result. The director, David Greene, has chosen to focus very much on the psychological, and has employed extensive symbolism, as well as a number of fantasy and flashback scenes that allow the viewer to get a good idea of how Wynne sees the world. In consequence, we’re able to work things out slightly before she does, but that only adds the excitement and suspense of it all.

I Start Counting was, to my knowledge, never broadcast at half-eleven on Friday and Saturday night, though it is unquestionably the sort of film that used to appear in the time slot. Like Walkabout, it is a captivating product of its time, a film that muddles the senses, seeming almost nostalgic at one moment and genuinely disquieting the next. The effect is not always pleasant; but then films of this nature aren’t supposed to be pleasant: they’re made to leave a lasting impression on those who watch them. These two are minority interest films, and though they may not be to everybody’s taste, I can’t imagine anybody regretting having watched them.

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