Given how much the film and literary worlds love mingling with one another, it’s no surprise that filmmakers have taken a liking towards biographical films about authors. From behind-the-shoulder shots of authors penning/typing the first words of their manuscript, to voiceovers from omniscient narrators, films about authors pretty much write themselves.
Without discrediting his impressive catalogue of works, Bill Bryson is an unusual choice for a film protagonist. For one, Bryson is a non-fiction writer, who appeals to his readers through introspective insights and intellectual trivia rather than neat stories. Secondly, he’s an unfashionable 63-year old man.
As a fan of Bryson, I naturally went into Ken Kwapis’ A Walk In The Woods with a few nerves. Just as Harry Potter fans would have held their breath before seeing the face of Daniel Radcliffe, I felt uneasy about Bryson – a man who in my mind has a name, a history, a personality, but not necessarily a face – being given a set of physical attributes.
Bryson, the writer, is a rugged adventurer, whose dry wit is matched with a robust vocabulary. I imagine him to be unexpectedly profound – the kind of person you’d meet at a pub, strike up a conversation with, and – before you know it – you’ve become an expert in the history of chicken parmigiana. What he is not, however, is Robert Redford.
As flattered as Bryson may be by the casting, Robert Redford is a questionable choice as Bryson. Redford’s leathered face and persistent tan make Bryson seem more snobby than sensitive, more proud than philosophical. Gone is the boyish curiosity and approachability that makes Bryson and his writings so compelling, leaving the audience with a rather unremarkable character.
If we forget for a moment who Bryson is supposed to be, and instead embrace the character laid before us, there are a few things to like about A Walk In The Woods. The storyline, which is fairly loyal to Bryson’s 1998 book of the same name, follows Bryson as he attempts to walk the 3,500-kilometre Appalachian Trial that cuts through the east of USA. Joining him is estranged childhood friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), the anti-Bryson if there ever was one.
There’s a touch of pointlessness to the duo’s journeys, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bryson and Katz are both doggedly determined to complete the improbable mission they’ve set themselves, without any honourable motivation guiding them. Not even the grave concerns held by Bryson’s wife Catherine (the ever-reliable Emma Thompson) are enough to quell their stubbornness. This irrationality is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the film; Kwapis feels no need to concoct elaborate reasons for this journey and is content with letting this wandering premise play out.
In this regard, A Walk In The Woods is a bit like watching Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip – you have fun intruding in on their lives, and almost don’t mind if the narrative doesn’t move. The film has a nice way of not overplaying its comic moments; with the exception of a frantic getaway sequence involving a heavyset man and his oversized red ute, the film’s most preposterous scenarios are laced with humanity, rather than Adam Sandler-esque punchlines and slapstick gags.
To Redford’s credit, his portrayal of Bryson both clashes and complements Nolte’s unpredictability, making for an entertaining dynamic. When coupled with the gorgeous American scenery, A Walk In The Woods becomes a pleasant experience, not unlike trekking through the wilderness.
With that said, this is the kind of story you’ve seen before – an ageing odd couple tackling an impossible challenge that leads them to contemplate their respective lives (The Bucket List, anyone?). The film has its poignant moments of raw humanity, but ultimately its inability to bring Bryon’s persona to life holds it back from being anything more than a nice travel film.
A Walk in The Woods is released in Australian cinemas on 3 September through Entertainment One.