FILM/ Casting couch: The surreal thing - Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AMERICAN literature is full of epic struggles between man and Nature, as represented by white whale or giant bear or marlin. Somehow, existential combat seems less impressive when the adversary, as in Robert Redford's new film (his third as director), A River Runs Through It (PG), is actually a trout. Though relatively large in terms of his species it can't ram your boat to matchwood nor hug you till your ribs melt. The greatest risk to the fisherman would seem to be slipping while playing a trout - if, say, drunk, or in the event that his waders have been buttered by his pals as a practical joke - and knocking his head against a stone.

A River Runs Through It, scripted by Richard Friedenberg from Norman Maclean's autobiographical novella, nevertheless makes out a fair aesthetic case for the glories of the sport. It soon becomes possible to distinguish between the casting styles of the principals, two brothers growing up in Missoula, Montana, in the early part of the century and their minister father, who can see no clear distinction between religion and fly-fishing. Their casting, with its disciplined swoops, has a generic similarity, as if they were signing the air with giant copperplate handwriting, but within that similarity Paul (Brad Pitt), Norman's younger brother, displays a mysterious surplus ease. The soundtrack, too, contributes to the magic of these sequences - the whistling whisper of the line flicked far across the river, the faint thwick] as the fly touches the surface of the water, the thrilled whirr of the reel when the fish runs.

If fly-fishing miniaturises the contest between man and Nature almost to the point of parody, the passing of time has also changed our sense of these things. Norman Maclean, growing up before the First World War but writing more than half a century later, could love Nature without thinking of it as a reserve. But it is impossible to contemplate natural beauty without anxiety, or to re-stage past struggles without a qualm, now that in certain obvious respects we have defeated Nature, and thereby defeated ourselves. The makers of A River Runs Through It are careful to emphasise, for instance, that no fish were killed or injured during the filming. They describe river trout as a 'priceless resource' and wish us good fishing - provided we release our catches after we've had our sport.

This is a piece of etiquette that would never have occurred to the Macleans, though what actually became of the fish they landed so expertly remains mysterious to viewers of the film. The logical alternatives have to be eating or mounting for display, but there are no signs of either cuisine or taxidermy. One of these methods of disposing of the fish once caught seems, it's true, unduly utilitarian, the other unduly competitive. The more likely solution to the problem of having to dispose of fish when their existential purpose has been served - cooking and eating - has the disadvantage that it invokes a feminine world. It won't be the men who bring the fish to table. Nature in American literature tends to imply (and sometimes starkly amounts to) the absence of women, but clearly it is ridiculous to imagine, fishing a mere walk away from your house, that you are somehow in the far wilds, where men can be men without interference.

Mrs Maclean seems to be discouraged by custom and the lack of suitable clothing from visiting the river where her menfolk fish, and when Paul makes a record catch his father is careful to photograph it for her benefit, rather as if she was thousands of miles away, rather than waiting for his return, perhaps with her pans at the ready. The only time we actually see a Maclean eat fish, they have been removed from Nature far away from Montana, without ritual or fuss. They are sardines, and Paul helps himself from the icebox.

If we must no longer take Nature for granted, as Redford the conservationist urges, how can we be expected to take the previous generations' relationship with Nature at face value, as Redford the film director tries to make us do with all the resources at his disposal? A man who throws his catch back into the river and one who takes his trophy home are getting something entirely different from the time they spend with rod and line. For one of them, the essence of the experience is that it is reversible, for the other that it is not.

Fishing gives the Maclean men an area of life where they can communicate emotionally without the direct statement that seems to be out of the question except in crisis or distant literary retrospect. It's true that they cradle the fish, once landed, as tenderly as New Men cradle their babies, but why should trout have to foot the bill for this open-air bonding seminar? The men's silence is seen by the film as heroic, if also somewhat tragic, but for us to hear and appreciate their silence, the women's much more complete silence must be made inaudible. Redford rather sabotages this project by casting Brenda Blethyn as Mrs Maclean, since although she has almost nothing to say or do (what an achievement of mothering, to have your son so take you for granted that when he looks back on his life he remembers with any clarity only his father and brother]) this splendid actress doesn't have the knack of doing nothing unnoticeably.

Emily Lloyd, who plays Jessie, a wild- seeming girl to whom Norman (Craig Sheffer) is attracted, doesn't have to dim her natural animation over-much. This is handy, since after her stunning debut in Wish You Were Here audiences will be expecting her to say 'Up your bum' every few seconds for some years yet. She'll have to play a waiting game if she wants the Helena Bonham Carter roles. But even Jessie's wildness is all in the seeming. As a film, A River Runs Through It has all the virtues except tension, which is unfortunately like saying that a watch would be a good timekeeper if the mainspring wasn't bust. Norman is able to reel Jessie in to docile matrimony, for all her apparent waywardness, and after that event she too goes dumb. Women leave spinsterhood as mysteriously as fish leave the river, and have about as much to say on any subject afterwards. Whether their fate is closer to being eaten or embalmed for display purposes is unclear; the only certainty is that they don't go back into the river.

The lack of tension in the film particularly affects the role of Norman, who after all is at the heart of the story because he remembered and recorded things, rather than because he experienced them with any intensity. His father (Tom Skerritt) has literary tastes as well as religious convictions, and Norman becoming an academic is the reverse of an alienation by education. But Paul pleases their father as much by becoming a local newspaperman, since he doesn't even move away from Missoula.

Redford remains a fine director of actors. With Brad Pitt, who gives a particularly good performance, he is dealing moreover with an actor whose handsomeness is reminiscent of his own at that age, robust in style, fragile because beauty can't be anything else. It may be that this subtext of the film, the director's nostalgia, rather than the author's, is the truest thing in it. This is a sort of beauty, unlike Nature's, where conservation and exploitation are reduced to the same thing remarkably soon.

'A River Runs Through It' opens tonight.

(Photograph omitted)