A Walk in the Woods

A WALK IN THE WOODS, US, 2015. Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman, Kristin Schaal. Directed by Ken Kwapis. 103 minutes.  Rated M (Coarse language and sexual references).

A lot of people have read Bill Bryson’s books, his travel, his observations of nature and history, his sense of humour as he encounters people, especially in the United Kingdom where he lived for many years, his return to his roots in the United States, other travels including Australia. Fans of his books may be interested to see how well they translate on to the screen. Of course, opinion is divided, some happy to share in Bryson’s experiences, others highlighting the limitations of a 104 minutes adaptation.

Many will appreciate Robert Redford’s presence as Bill Bryson. Again, on the other hand, Redford is decades is older than the real Bryson. In fact, Robert Redford at 78 when he made this film and, despite the dyed hair, generally looks his age or a touch beyond. But, he looks reasonably good in comparison with his companion on the Trail, Stephen Katz, the fictitious name for a real character from Bryson’s past who accepts invitation to do the walk (after so many friends him turned down, reasonably, especially one who had died sometime earlier!). Katz is played by Nick Nolte, looking larger than life, unkempt, lumbering around, certainly not a likely candidate to do this long hike.

As with Wild, the 2014 film about walking the Pacific Trail with Reese Witherspoon, there is activity, a long hike, expending energy, and looking at a lot of attractive scenery – perhaps enticing sitting-down audiences to venture out to see more of the US.

There is a great deal of humour in the repartee between the two (and more than a touch of compensation as they reminisce about sexual experiences and enjoy quite a bit of innuendo). It is inevitable that there are funny sequences as two old men, at times with the touch of the grumpies, pitch their tents, are enveloped in a snowstorm, fall into a river, gingerly walk along a ledge to little avail is over they go, try to frighten away huge bears…

There are also the people they meet along the way, generally friendly and helpful, although there is single-minded hiker called Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal) who is absolutely full of herself, talks incessantly, is critical of the old men, praises herself for her achievement and is not plagued for a second by self-doubt. While irritating to them and to us, she stands out as one of the livelier characters of the film.

This is an opportunity to see something of the countryside of the United States, along the eastern rim, the Appalachian Trail. But, as maybe with the book, it is really a series of anecdotes any one of which could be eliminated, and any other one substituted in its place. While this does make the film enjoyable in its way, the anecdotal overcomes any of the more serious possible themes.

A great plus for the film, at the beginning and at the end, is the presence of Emma Thompson as Catherine Bryson.

A film night out rather than any deeper exploration of characters and their motivations.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Released September 3rd  

eOne Films.