Title: A Walk In The Woods
Director: Ken Kwapis
Major Players: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Out Of Five? 3.5
It’s Man v Elements Week. Take your pick: there’s the terrifying spectacle that is Everest (my review is on Filmoria) or, for something more leisurely, you could go for A Walk In The Woods. Not that the latter doesn’t have its moments.
This is based on Bill Bryson’s book about his hike along the Appalachian Trail in the company of his friend Stephen Katz. And it’s a project that’s been on the books of its star, Robert Redford, for some years. He takes the Bryson role and had originally planned for Butch Cassidy co-star Paul Newman to be Katz, but time sadly ran out. So now he takes a hike with Nick Nolte and, once we see him, we completely understand why Bryson’s wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) isn’t just concerned about the project, but his companion as well. It’s partly her fault, though, because she only agreed to Bill going on the trip if he went with a friend.
Once they get going, there are times when the trail does look a tad too easy, too sanitised almost, with its stopping places, motels and apparently plentiful places to eat. But every time we start to think that, the more challenging side of the trip rears its head. There’s a vicious snowstorm, the inevitable bears that raid their camp and the moment when they fall off a ledge and it looks like game over. There’s no doubt that the trail is a big ask – the drop-outs far outweigh those who’ve completed it – but it’s even harder going for the likes of Redford and Nolte. In the book, Bryson and Katz are in their late forties, but in the version on the screen they’re older by at least twenty years. No wonder Emma Thompson was worried!
The scenery is a gift to director, Ken Kwapis, and his cinematographer, John Bailey. The vast expanses of forest, with their low clouds suspended over the treetops like giant, ethereal hammocks, are made for the big screen. As are the rivers, seen up close and at a distance. But, in the main, the trail is reasonably civilised with its proper footpaths and signposts. Not that the pair take much notice of the signs, especially the one that advises a forthcoming stretch is best for experienced hikers only.
The film hangs on two things. The actors playing the two leads and the script’s ability to capture the tone and spirit of Bryson’s book. The script is on the button, with the wry humour and pointed, but nonetheless gentle, observations about human nature that’s Bryson’s stock in trade. It’s also tinged with an element of nostalgia as Katz tells him what’s become of the various places they knew in their youth. In the main, they’ve all become Wall-Marts or the like.
Redford as Bryson has the right touch of weariness that’s always overshadowed by his interest in the world – and sometimes his despair at it. He’s great at expressing himself on paper but not, as he admits, so good with people. Nolte is suitably craggy and scruffy as the reformed hard drinker, Katz, and looks like he won’t make it past the first day. Paunchy, florid of face and wheezy of chest, he’s Redford’s foil, both in appearance and attitude. He wrecks a bunk bed and gets chased out of town by an angry husband yet, despite a tendency to overcook the role just a wee bit, he is genuinely funny.
In fact, the film is constantly amusing, even if Redford doesn’t always appear at ease with playing comedy. There’s a good smattering of laugh out loud moments and it’s generally as comfortable and warm as a pair of favourite slippers. Or should that be hiking boots?
A Walk In The Woods is released in cinemas on Friday, 18 September and will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 17 September.