The Way

The Way


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

As the Charlie Sheen career implosion continues apace, you might find yourself asking what the other two-thirds of America’s most famous acting dynasty have been up to. It’s a fair bet you might not expect the answer to be: collaborating on a low-key, character-driven drama about faith and tragedy shot entirely in the Pyrenees.

The Way is certainly not your typical Hollywood aristocracy co-project – and is all the better for it. Quirky, moving and reflective, it also offers a long-overdue opportunity for a true screen icon to deliver a star turn.

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It’s perhaps not too surprising that Sheen would find himself drawn, even without the family connection, to the film’s central premise – a successful but solitary and status-obsessed man finds his life transformed by personal tragedy and a realisation of the importance of the spiritual dimension to everyone’s life. Sheen’s devout Catholicism is as much a matter of record as his political views - and his father came from Galicia, the rugged region of north-west Spain which every year sees thousands of pilgrims journey to the cathedral said to contain the bones of the apostle St James.

But it’s clearly a labour of love for Estevez, too, and he largely avoids the curse of the multi-hyphenate (he’s the producer as well), creating a heartfelt and very personal work which only rarely seems self-indulgent or under-edited. And he obviously had a whale of a time working with his dad. The two have collaborated before (most notably on the Vietnam drama The War At Home) but here he coaxes a performance from Sheen that mixes mature dignity and raw emotion with perfect comic timing and the raw star power and charisma that have kept him at the top of the tree for nearly 40 years.

Sheen plays Tom Avery, a widowed sixtysomething California optician whose life is settled and successful – apart from a difficult relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez, putting in even more overtime). Addicted to globetrotting and discovering new experiences, Daniel is everything his father isn’t and a source of constant concern.

His latest adventure is walking the Camino, or Way of St James – an 800km pilgrimage to Santiago which has been undertaken for over a millennium by devout Christians, seekers after spiritual truth and those who simply enjoy a communal experience (not to mention a good long walk).

But Daniel has barely set out before he dies in an accident in the French Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom flies out to bring his son’s body back home – but abruptly decides to walk The Way himself. He uses his son’s equipment and arranges to have his body cremated, scattering the ashes at various points along the trail.

Unable to explain his decision even to himself, he’s keen to avoid contact with his fellow pilgrims but inevitably strikes up acquaintances. Most notable are Sarah (Deborah Unger), a spiky, hippyish divorcee undertaking the journey as a symbolic cure for her cigarette addiction; Yost (Yorick van Wageningen) a genial Dutchman keen to "lose a few pounds before my brother’s wedding"; and Jack (James Nesbitt) a blocked writer seeking to get to the heart of what makes a true pilgrim – and get a book out of it.

As they share the discomforts of the trail, and the Spartan dormitories which issue the ‘passport’ stamps necessary to prove they’ve undertaken the trip in full, each finds out more about the others and it becomes clear that, though none of them are ‘religious’, each is looking for a missing dimension to their lives. But that doesn’t stop them exhibiting all the character flaws that beset them in their day-to-day lives – and getting on each other’s nerves when in such close proximity...

All this could make for a glibly feelgood, or hectoringly religiose, film. But while unashamedly examining the fact that faith is an essential part of many people’s character, journeys like The Way also offer an experience both communal and contemplative that transcends sectarian boundaries. Some of the scenes slightly labour the point (and tend to overload the ranks of the supporting cast with lovable eccentrics and Noble European Peasants) but on the whole it’s a warm, engaging tale of believably flawed characters searching fro something outside of, and larger than, their own lives.

I’d happily watch Sheen read the telephone directory and here, after a few solid supporting turns in the likes of The Departed, he takes centre stage for what seems to me the first time in ages. If your image of him is still the ferally compelling young Turk of Badlands and Apocalypse Now be prepared to feel a twinge of the old arthritis (and brace yourself if you remember Estevez from his lean, baby-faced Brat Pack days, too) but rest assured he’s still got it.

The other main players are equally impressive. Unger is a convincing combination of toughness and vulnerability, gradually realising that she’s not just travelling The Way as an excuse to quit the fags, and van Wageningen, who initially seems nothing more than an overly-hearty dullard, emerges as the most troubled, but also the most truly pilgrim-like, of the quartet. Only Nesbitt’s garrulous Irish wordsmith seems too close to caricature, but after some overly-mannered initial scenes he dials it down and brings his customary easy charm to the proceedings.

Estevez had a keen eye for both the verdant, autumnal beauty and the sudden bleakness and harshness of the French/Spanish mountain country and there’s an eclectic soundtrack which doesn’t stray too much into the key of Uplift.

Like Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes and Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods And Men the film isn’t ashamed to look at the role of faith in an increasingly secular society and highlights its importance without being preachy or patronising. The Way is a long haul, and not without its longeurs at times. But, like the four protagonists, you’ll be glad you followed it all the way through.

Reviewed on: 11 May 2011
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An American optician is prompted by family tragedy to undertake the ‘Camino’ pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.
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Director: Emilio Estevez

Writer: Emilio Estevez

Starring: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt

Year: 2010

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

The Departed
Of Gods And Men