Adapted from Norman Maclean’s best-selling autobiographical novella of the same name, Robert Redford’s first directorial outing since 1988’s The Milagro Beanfield War is a ravishingly photographed, elegiac memoir of Maclean’s younger brother Paul, and a rumination of the finer points of that most uncinematic of pastimes, fly-fishing.
Lyrical without begin trite, this captivates from the moment Redford’s effortless voice-over slides and we flashback to the narrator’s childhood in Montana at the turn of the century – a time untouched by war, and a place seemingly blessed. For the male members of the Maclean family – Presbyterian minister Tom Skerritt and his two young sons, Norman and Paul – there is one place where communication between them is possible, here on the Big Blackfoot River, where life, religion and art merge as one; as they cast their fishing lines into the water, a hithero untapped harmony descends upon them.
Years pass by in a blur of sepia-tinted photos, eventually settling in 1926 when Norman returns from college, wise in the ways of prose, but a man still in his father’s shadow. Paul is the wild card of the pair, a consummate fly-fishing artist, a killer with the ladies, and a liability for the operators of the local gambling den when he runs up huge debts. In the role, Pitt showed the first inkling that he was more than a pretty face, turning in a layered performance that anchors the entire movie. It’s a part Redford knows well – all bright-eyed brilliance and fatal inevitability – and 20 years ago he would have played it himself.
Consequently, Sheffer’s Norman is less well defined, a stoic proposition lacking his sibling’s pose, flair and looks, his character’s relationship with Jessie the only one in the movie that fails to convince.
That aside this is an elegant if simply structured film, one crafted with a warmth and understanding reflective of the director enamoured of his subject matter – Redford courted Maclean for years to gain the rights to the book. And, despite being at least half an hour too long, there is much to be recommended – from Phillippe Rousselot’s exquisite cinematography, with the stunning scenery of Montana as a backdrop, to Redford’s assured direction, this is utterly alluring, and manages to make fly-fishing seem not just romantic, but thrilling.