Monday 5 October 2015

Zurich Film Festival - A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods (104 mins)
Director: Ken Kwapis
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

When American writer Bill Bryson set out to walk the Appalachian Trail in the mid 1990s and then wrote the subsequent book of his adventures, he was somewhere in his mid 40s.

Robert Redford, pushing 80, may seem an unusual casting choice to play Bryson, but he’s been in possession of the rights to A Walk in the Woods since the 90s and has finally realised his long-cherished ambition of getting it to the screen.

With the film being set in the present day, Redford is essentially playing Bryson now, a man in his mid 60s. As such the casting isn’t too much of a stretch and actually rather works, with Redford instantly capturing the facetiousness of Bryson’s one-liners.

It can’t be an easy job to fictionalise a travelogue, and this film will never take the place of the book in terms of the detail and depth that can be covered. So the only way to make it work is as a light comedy, and it more or less succeeds in nailing the tone and Bryson’s way with language.

Dramatic impetus needs to be created, so an associate’s death is the spur for Bryson to plan to walk the AT, over 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. His wife (Emma Thompson) tries to talk him out of it of course, but he needs someone to go with him. Everyone says no expect his old buddy Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), who turns up wildly out of shape and with a craving for doughnuts.

So off they set from Georgia, Bryson ahead, Katz behind struggling to keep up, puffing and moaning, and the grizzly and grumpy Nolte is also a nice bit of casting. Their prickly relationship is at the centre of most scenes, and their age does add a certain poignancy the film wouldn’t necessarily have had with younger men.

Lines are lifted directly from the book, and some of Bryson’s exchanges read like great comedy dialogue anyway, so it translates nicely to the screen. Unfortunately it’s a crying shame the whole thing just wasn’t in the hands of more talented filmmakers. Episodes feel rushed and side characters barely get a look in, while the addition of knockabout pratfalls isn’t really a successful one and half the time the joke is botched through poor execution.

Nor does it really give a sense of the mile after mile trudging that’s captured in the book, or the hardship. It all seems a bit quick and easy, with too many hotels and not enough squalor, but then you can’t just watch them walk for minutes on end.

But it’s perfectly pleasant and gets most of the important stuff right, like the majesty of nature. Bryson fans should find stuff to enjoy, newcomers should get a few easy laughs, and everyone can dwell on the notion that it could all have been so much better.

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