David Strat­ton and Stephen Romei rate the latest re­leases

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Strat­ton

AWalk in the Woods, the film ver­sion of Bill Bryson’s book in which the au­thor de­scribes his at­tempt to walk the Ap­palachian Trail from Ge­or­gia to Maine, is a bit of a cheat. Bryson wrote the book in 1998, when he was 47, but the film, di­rected by Ken Kwapis, makes much of the fact that Bryson, played by 79-year-old Robert Red­ford, is an old man and the friend who ac­com­pa­nies him, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte, 74), is no spring chicken, ei­ther. By ma­nip­u­lat­ing the ages of the char­ac­ters in this way, the film se­ri­ously shifts the di­rec­tion of the orig­i­nal text, turn­ing it into a spec­u­la­tion about the pos­si­bil­ity of two se­nior cit­i­zens sur­viv­ing such an or­deal.

As more and more films are aim­ing at an older de­mo­graphic, this may make box-of­fice sense, but it’s hardly true to Bryson’s orig­i­nal ma­te­rial, added to which the screen­play, by Rick Kerb and Bill Hol­d­er­man, is not only bland but also sur­pris­ingly misog­y­nis­tic.

A young fe­male hiker (Kris­ten Schaal) is mer­ci­lessly car­i­ca­tured as a talk­a­tive bore while there’s more than one deroga­tory ref­er­ence to over­weight women. These el­e­ments come as a sur­prise in a film co-pro­duced by Red­ford’s Wild­wood En­ter­prises, given the ac­tor’s pro­gres­sive track record across a long pe­riod, but there are com­pen­sa­tions, not least in the per­for­mances of the two vet­eran ac­tors.

Red­ford’s Bryson is first seen fend­ing off hos­tile ques­tions dur­ing a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view re­lat­ing to the fact that he has never writ­ten about trav­el­ling in Amer­ica. Re­al­is­ing that the Ap­palachian Trail passes near his house in New Hamp­shire, he re­solves to em­bark on the chal­leng­ing jour­ney, but his sen­si­ble English wife, per­fectly played by Emma Thompson, in­sists he not travel alone.

En­ter Katz (Nolte), a sham­bolic, over­weight charmer who looks in­ca­pable of walk­ing a kilo­me­tre, let alone more than 3000km. The ban­ter be­tween the men is the core of the film, but the spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes through which they travel — hand­somely pho­tographed by John Bai­ley — are per­haps the main rea­son to see this gen­er­ally dis­ap­point­ing adap­ta­tion. As a bonus, there is also a pair of sur­pris­ingly un­threat­en­ing bears.

The Guest is a slow-burn­ing sus­pense thriller con­ceived along fairly con­ven­tional lines, but it is on the whole suc­cess­ful in achiev­ing its ad­mit­tedly lim­ited goals.

David (Dan Stevens), a ruggedly hand­some stranger with pierc­ingly blue eyes, turns up at the re­mote home of the Peter­son fam­ily claim­ing to be the best friend of Caleb Peter­son, killed in Iraq. Laura Peter­son (Sheila Kel­ley) wel­comes the man who says he was with her son when he died, and in­vites him to stay.

Her hus­band, Spencer (Le­land Orser), their 20-year-old daugh­ter Anna (Maika Monroe) and young Luke (Bren­dan Meyer) are at first more cau­tious, but even­tu­ally ev­ery­one em­braces David even as di­rec­tor Adam Win­gard makes it clear — through the use of sin­is­ter mu­sic and shots of those dead blue eyes — David isn’t to be trusted.

At first David helps Luke stand up to school bul­lies and en­joys a drink with Spencer while Anna re­mains sus­pi­cious — and rightly so. In fact, David proves to be sim­i­lar to the char­ac­ter Lau­rence Har­vey played in The Manchuri

an Can­di­date, though Win­gard’s film has no time for that kind of sub­tlety and nu­ance and seem­ingly can’t wait to reach the wildly over-the-top cli­max that un­folds at a school hall at Hal­loween.

Stevens, a Down­town Abbey alum­nus, is con­vinc­ingly chill­ing as the un­stop­pably lethal David, and the rest of the cast do what they can with their stock roles. Win­gard suc­ceeds in cre­at­ing a level of sus­pense even when the plot be­comes in­creas­ingly im­prob­a­ble, and no doubt fans of this sort of thing will be am­ply re­warded. In­creas­ingly, films — es­pe­cially, it seems, Aus­tralian films — are be­ing given a lim­ited stag­gered re­lease with iso­lated screen­ings, of­ten in­tro­duced by some­one con­nected with the movie. Robert Con­nolly pi­o­neered this ap­proach suc­cess­fully with The Turn­ing and, re­cently, Stranger­land and Slow West have screened in this way. Now comes Paul Cox’s

Force of Des­tiny which, af­ter open­ing the Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, fol­lowed by screen­ings in Mel­bourne, can now be seen in ir­reg­u­lar screen­ings all over Aus­tralia.

Since 1977, Cox, who came to Aus­tralia from The Nether­lands in 1963, has been mak­ing small-scale fea­ture films about the hu­man con­di­tion, of­ten fea­tur­ing mi­grant char­ac­ters ( Kostas, Golden Braid) and even more of­ten char­ac­ters liv­ing a lonely, mar­ginal life ( Lonely Hearts, Man of Flow­ers, A Woman’s Tale).

A few years ago, Cox was di­ag­nosed with can­cer of the liver, and only a trans­plant — at the last minute — saved his life. He has turned this ex­pe­ri­ence into a dra­matic fea­ture which, while not en­tirely au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, con­tains many de­tails and in­ci­dents taken from life. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is Robert, the ex­cel­lent David Wen­ham, a sculp­tor (not a film­maker, but a dif­fer­ent kind of artist) sep­a­rated from his wife Han­nah (Jac­que­line McKen­zie), but close to daugh­ter Poppy (Han­nah Frederickson, bring­ing fresh­ness and charm to her char­ac­ter). When he’s di­ag­nosed with can­cer, Robert’s doc­tors give con­flict­ing opin­ions, but even­tu­ally he re­alises that he’s mor­tally ill and ur­gently needs a trans­plant. He’s placed on a wait­ing list, but avail­able liv­ers are few and far be­tween.

Dur­ing this ag­o­nis­ing pe­riod he meets Maya (Sha­hana Goswami), an In­dian woman liv­ing in Aus­tralia, and ac­com­pa­nies her on a trip home to see her un­cle, who is also mor­tally ill. (Oddly, although there are scenes shot in In­dia, Cox omits any con­ven­tional scenes of travel such as planes tak­ing off.)

Cox’s first-hand ob­ser­va­tions of life un­der the threat of death are acute and af­fect­ing; the calm ef­fi­ciency of the nurses and doc­tors, and the at­ti­tudes of other pa­tients and fam­ily mem­bers who visit them are all beau­ti­fully noted. Like all Cox’s films, Force of Des­tiny con­tains a pow­er­ful hu­man mes­sage, in this case a plea for more or­gan donors.

Wen­ham, who played the Bel­gian priest Fa­ther Damien in Cox’s ex­cel­lent but lit­tle-seen 1999 Molokai, is a strong fo­cus for the drama, and is par­tic­u­larly fine in the scene on Christ­mas Eve in which he re­ceives an ur­gent call from the hos­pi­tal. And, as al­ways in Cox’s films, the women are strong — sym­pa­thetic Maya, anx­ious Han­nah, lov­ing, de­voted Poppy.

This very mov­ing film de­serves to be seen be­cause, although about im­mi­nent death, it’s re­ally about life it­self.

A WALK IN THE WOODS IS HARDLY TRUE TO BILL BRYSON’S ORIG­I­NAL MA­TE­RIAL

Clock­wise from left, Robert Red­ford and Nick Nolte in A Walk in the Woods; Dan Stevens in

The Guest; Sha­hana Goswami and David Wen­ham in Force of Des­tiny

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