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The Walk review: a dizzying visual success
October 8, 2015
In 2008, documentarian James Marsh released Man On Wire, the true story of Frenchman Philippe Petit, who sought to make the dizzying walk across the sky between New York’s Twin Towers. Whilst the Oscar and Bafta-winning documentary was undeniably gripping, the audience never actually saw Petit’s walk in action, the event itself shown through a series of still images.
For Robert Zemeckis, the challenge appears to be the exact opposite. From his fictional film’s extensive marketing campaign through to its title, all eyes are on ‘The Walk’ itself, a spectacle the director ensures delivers the desired drama, through a best-in-class use of 3D visual effects. Petit’s choice of location now feels all the more poignant, his feat now literally impossible. No other person will be able to replicate his actions now that the buildings have been destroyed, their visual identity immediately stirring fear and anxiety in contemporary audiences.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings heart to the role of the cock-sure and hyper-focused Petit, each gesture and mannerism appearing carefully studied and included with purpose. This attention to detail redeems the actor from his interesting take on a French accent, which becomes only mildly distracting, despite its prevalence, when countered by the eye-watering cinematography and a solid supporting cast. Ben Kingsley plays mentor figure Papa Rudy, throwing out pearls of wisdom in a pork-pie hat. It sometimes feels like the supporting characters aren’t quite fully realised, but with the narrative strongly weighted towards Petit’s solo act, this doesn’t seem like an unconscious decision.
Viewed in 3D, The Walk works to brief in delivering vertiginous, nail-biting moments as we watch Petit achieve his life-long dream. Outside of the final setpiece, Zemeckis uses subtle flashes of 3D artistry to add an extra layer to emotive scenes, taking a kiss between Petit and girlfriend Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon) into extreme close-up and ramping it up to a believable intimacy.
Though enjoyable, the film’s two hour running time does feel a little excessive. The first 90 minutes feel like a long trail for the main event, grappling for some of Man on Wire’s deeper context and feeling, but ultimately making a trade-off between visual success and the audience’s emotional investment. If you can, watch Man On Wire before you see The Walk, to provide some personal insight and soul for Petit’s story before the latter’s final act makes your head spin.
Words by Martha Ling