The Weinstein Co. picked up their fact-based odyssey out of the Venice and Telluride festivals last year, where it collected a bevy of critical admirers there and in Toronto before finally opening a year later.
With much of the running time devoted to an often-silent Wasikowska with a quartet of scene-stealing camels and a trusty black lab as her lone companions, the film is a true test of whether the 24-year-old actress has enough star power to hold an audience’s interest. Judging by the reviews, the answer is a fairly resounding yes.
“Ever redder of nose, ever more bedraggled about the hair, Wasikowska, without much dialogue, invests the character with complexity, intelligence and charisma,” wrote “Irish Times” critic Donald Clarke. “Variety’s” Justin Chang described the actress’s performance as “fine and flinty” and “authentically jagged and lived-in.” David Edelstein of “New York” magazine praised Wasikowska’s ability to be “bracingly anti-ingratiating, one of those rare actors who can find the magic in plainness.”
Signature line: “I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice, but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here.” — As Alice Kingsleigh, a strong-willed young woman in Victorian England who embarks on an unusual trip in 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
Career peaks: The Canberra, Australia native has been charting her own course for some time, after dropping her childhood dream of becoming a ballerina to pursue a career as an actor at age 14. Wasikowska latched onto the idea simply by watching a bunch of movies, including such favorites as “My Brilliant Career” and “The Piano”: “I thought, I can do that.” And then I thought, ‘I would regret it if I didn’t try it.’” She Googled her way into locating an agent and found work on her home turf, doing a guest spot on an Australian TV soap and a couple films, including the killer-crocodile horror flick “Rogue” in 2007.
Her break came when she appeared on the HBO series “In Treatment” in 2008 as a suicidal gymnast while sporting a convincing American accent, which led to roles in such American films as the aeronautical biopic “Amelia” and the Southern gothic drama “That Evening Sun,” both in 2009. After countless auditions, she scored the coveted role as the title heroine in Tim Burton’s 2010 mega-hit “Alice in Wonderland.” “She had that quality, both young and an old soul,” the director told “USA TODAY” at the time. “Looking at her, you can tell she has intelligence, creativity and an active internal life. She has Alice’s quiet strength.”
That same year, Wasikowska impressed, alongside Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, as the daughter of two lesbian mothers who is curious about her sperm donor father in “The Kids Are All Right,” which was nominated for a best-picture Oscar. Since then, she has concentrated on indie efforts, most notably 2011’s “Jane Eyre” opposite Michael Fassbender and this year’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” directed by Jim Jarmusch. As she has said, “The independent films are really where I come from and where I feel comfortable.”
Biggest assets: As the Red Queen herself, Helena Bonham Carter, once observed of her “Alice” co-star, “She is one of those people who is very changeable, ethereal but also rooted. A woman and a girl, like a hologram.” The adaptable Wasikowska can play plain and period, as her Jane Eyre proved, but also playful and minx-like as her delightfully mischievous vampire Ava revealed in “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Plus, she can hold her own opposite far more experienced performers such as Glenn Close in 2011’s “Albert Nobbs” and Nicole Kidman in 2013’s “Stoker.” There is also an exciting sense that she is still finding herself onscreen and has talent that has yet to be fully tapped.
Awards attention: No Globe or Oscar nominations yet, but she was up for an Independent Spirit honor as supporting actress in “That Evening Sun” and won a 2010 Hollywood Film Festival breakthrough award as actress of the year.
Biggest problem: Wasikowska’s decision to focus more on smaller indie titles such as Sophie Barthes’ poorly received Telluride 2014 acquisition title “Madame Bovary” has given her the opportunity to shape her craft in a variety of roles, but has done little to raise her profile with the ticket-buying public. True, “Alice in Wonderland” somewhat offset that situation. According to Box Office Mojo, it ranks as the 30th highest-grossing movie of all time domestically, just above “Forrest Gump,” and No. 17 worldwide, sitting atop Peter Jackson’s first “Hobbit” outing. But more people associate Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter with the fantasy adventure than Wasikowska. And thus Harvey Weinstein felt the need to feature supporting player Adam Driver in the foreground of the “Tracks” print ads. So far the movie hasn’t marked big numbers in limited September release (worldwide box office so far: $4.4 million).
Gossip fodder: This daughter of a Polish-born photographer mother is also an avid shutterbug who would rather shoot pictures than hit the party circuit. But last year at the Toronto film festival, she became an object of paparazzi attention when she and Jessie Eisenberg, her co-star in “The Double,” came out as a couple on the red carpet.
Career advice: It is a pleasure to watch Wasikowska grow as an actress without having to deal with the constant media circus that a contemporary like Jennifer Lawrence has to handle. As both Alice and Jane Eyre showed, she has what it takes to play a well-known literary character and put her own personal stamp on them with success. And she deserves to try out her skills in bigger arenas. It is a good sign that she is getting more lead showcases like “Tracks.” But the occasional high-quality mainstream film won’t hurt, either. And Wasikowska seemed miscast as Gustave Flaubert’s archetypal unhappy 19th-century housewife philanderer Madame Bovary.
What’s next: David Cronenberg’s scathing Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars,” the Cannes fave that reunites her with Julianne Moore, opens early next year. Even more exciting, she stars alongside Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston as an author who makes an unusual discovery about her new husband in Guillermo Del Toro’s horror film “Crimson Peak,” also 2015. And, yes, there will be a second helping of “Alice,” officially titled “Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass,” in 2016.