There are some things a parent should never have to do. Look under their beds, listen to their music or bury them – that’s my top three. And I’ve been lucky. Lugubrious Len in room 8, he’s not been so lucky. We watched The Way together, a gently-paced two-hour panacea to loss. It helped us both. Beautiful film.
The Way starts in Martin Sheen‘s surgery. He’s a well-to-do ophthalmologist, Tom Avery, a widower, wealthy and with similar friends. The news lands on him on the golf course where he swings his cart like a boomerang: his son is dead. Cue memories of said son being a hippyish pain in the arse to his old Dad: he’s dumping college, tossing away the meaning of wealth for the meaning of life, and off he goes to all the off-the-beaten track places the brochures don’t cover. And dies in a storm on The Way.
The son is Daniel, played by writer, director and actual Sheen-son Emilio Estevez. The similarity between father and son – indeed, between Estevez and my own son young Steve – is uncanny. Daniel pops up in memory-ghost form throughout the picture, never heavy-handedly, but enough to wrench old grief from the soul.
Tom goes to the place his son died, which is at the start of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, an ancient tradition for religious (and all other) types to walk from France to Spain on “The Way of Saint James”. In the moment, he has his son cremated, packs up his walking gear and begins the walk.
Old Jack went to the funeral of a friend a long time ago. His parents, then as old as I am now, were “being strong”, but, oh, the cruelty of what life had done to them. I couldn’t speak to them on the day, they were awash with condolences and the need to be away from other people. That distance hangs over Sheen’s Tom Avery as he starts on the pilgrimage. His first stop is the site his son died: nondescript, marked with a makeshift wooden cross; it takes the story into the spiritual if not the religious. Old Tom Avery begins the honouring of his boy and the boy’s intended journey by placing a handful of ashes at the site. Len and I were already weeping, touched by Sheen’s handling of the moment: kissing the plastic bag they’re in, bowing his head, crossing himself. I am not a religious man, but the film had me by the spirituals from that moment on.
On the funnier side, Sheen’s Tom is grumpy in his grief, and the journey demands he connects with other travellers. First up is the tall, fat, good-natured Joost (Yorick van Wageningen being adorable). His charm gets him past his irritating drug habits. He is out to lose weight for his brother’s wedding and wife’s sexy-time needs, but caves at the sight of booze or food… He humanizes Tom to a degree, sussing the death of Dan and the purpose behind dropping ashes at points along the way. For Joost knows Tom is walking the walk in Dan’s shoes, completing it for him.
Lugubrious Len asked for a pause at this point. He needed some fresh air and a moment alone in his room. The film is a salve to the grief of an old parent, but the ability of Sheen to walk the walk – a tad unrealistic given his age – carries an unkindness for seniors who share the same loss. Len came back, saying he was at ease with watching this as a daydream of what he would have done for his girl.
Tom and Joost bump into Sarah, played coolly by Deborah Kara Unger, angry-eyed behind sharply cut blonde hair, pretending the journey is her last trip with cigarettes. There is more to her than that, which emerges in a ghastly moment that gets an innocent Tom smacked in the head. For the abused abuses…but is so consumed by guilt that you forgive her as well.
Finally, Sheen and his tentative friends pick up James Nesbitt. Fresh from Middle-Earth, he’s back on the road as Jack, an Irish writer who can’t do it anymore. He had dreams of being Yeats, ended up doing travel books, and now lacks inspiration for even that. Cue Tom’s story and a degree of tension…
You will like them all. They’re weird, hurt, not quite telling their real reasons for the journey. And – when Tom gets drunk and angry and tears into them all before ending up handcuffed to the police station radiator – destined to be good friends. I found their ages telling as well: Sheen was about to turn seventy when this was made, all the others were in their forties, as was the putative son, Daniel. Estevez brings them all together slowly, but it is worth the wait. And nicely reflective of any sponsored walk ever: strangers, become fellows, become – if there’s a hint of adversity – lifelong buds. Free of domestic life, middle-age is here a thing of attainable redemption.
Len needed a second break after Tom’s rucksack was stolen by a Romani boy, then returned by the boy’s father. The decency of the moment, the welcome into a night’s dancing by the community, and the walk to the edge of town the next morning, whilst prosaic, were properly touching.
And that’s the thing about The Way. As one of the characters notes, the journey Joost, Sarah, Jack and Tom make is just a long walk. But they face their own griefs, some with more success than others. One night in a hotel, each in their own space, results in the group migrating back to Tom’s room for drinks and laughs. Oh, for life to be like that. Oh for grief to be met by people who get it, not just those with bemused condolences to offer.
There are more incidents – all fairly episodic and suggested by Jack Hitt‘s book Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain – and I didn’t want them to stop. Ishmael (Antonio Gil giving it wiry and wise) is the Romani father, suggesting a slightly longer journey for Tom the the end of his pilgrimage. Old Jack watched those extra miles through tears, holding Len’s hand, and glad that Estevez and his pitch-perfect cast and crew had set on making such a lovely, necessary film.
For anyone who has lost someone, parent, child, lover or friend, I suggest you get some top-quality tear-catchers and sit down to The Way one Sunday night. There are things hiding in you that will welcome the chance to be wept away. And, in this film, you’ve found a new friend.
Buy the film on iTunes and the like. get your Camino passport here…