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On the Road : Cornerhouse Manchester

Film review - 17 October 2012

ontheroadfilmI approached this viewing with some trepidation. A screen adaptation of On the Road had been on the cards for twenty years or more since Frances Ford Copolla bought the screen rights. Finally brought to the screen by Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles it generated mixed reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival ranging from scorn to indifference. It was only to be expected. Kerouac’s novels were never written for the box office. Why he expected to make money from his genius in his life time is a mystery to me. My recollection is that the critics willingly accepted Salles' craftsmanship in producing a road movie that did justice to the road and were grudgingly half hearted about the script and performances.



On the Road was never my favourite Kerouac novel. But there are passages that demand to be read aloud to ruck (yes ruck) and roll, to soar and swirl with the mere joy of words. The characters are ciphers, possibly a result of Kerouac’s sometimes anodyne prudity, censorious editing, possibly because that’s what he intended.  Reviewers criticised the film for a lack of wildness and absence of danger (Manola Dargin NY Times) and “good looking but directionless and self-adoring” (Peter Bradshaw The Guardian). What else did they expect? The novel published in 1957 is a bowdlerised version of events that were indeed directionless and self-adoring.

My biggest beef was with the casting of Dean (Garret Hedlund) and Sal (Sam Riley). They just seemed too damned young. Kerouac and Cassidy were already well-beaten men by the late 40s when the action took place. Kristen Stewart on the other hand looked a well-developed sixteen year old Marylou. Once I'd suspended my rush to judgement, and got over the initial exposition, I enjoyed a film about New York in the late 40s, the modern American frontier, and a group of people doing what people do. Sure it's a bit tame compared with contemporary down town Bolton on an average Saturday night but it's silly to deny one's self a little pleasure at a well-made travelogue and sociological observation worthy of National Geographic (in its 50s heyday). Frankly I could have stood a little more and was quite disappointed when it finished. It was warm and comfortable in the Cornerhouse. Outside, surprise of surprises, it was pissing down.

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