David Stratton and Stephen Romei rate the latest releases
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