Hampstead – movie review

by Peter Calder / 07 August, 2017
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Emily Walters (Diane Keaton) and Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson).

Turning the true story of a London squatter into a romcom is no walk in the park.

The most improbable aspect of this most improbable of romantic comedies is that it’s based on fact: a homeless Irishman built a shack and a makeshift camp in the bushes in a corner of Hampstead Heath in the 1980s, claimed squatter’s rights (on the basis of continuous occupation) in 2007 and was awarded title to a half-acre plot of land worth £2 million.

His name was Harry Hallowes, and it’s probably a mercy that he disclaimed any interest in the project and never saw the finished film before he died in February last year; he would have been much perplexed at the ability of the movies to turn an interesting yarn into irredeemable tosh.

Hampstead is plainly seeking to replicate the formula of Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill, though it’s unlikely to have the same effect as that film did on property prices in one of London’s most desirable postcodes.

Here, it’s home to Emily Walters (Diane Keaton), a widow in financial difficulties because she can’t pay the body-corp fees on her flat in a Georgian apartment block (the idea of employment seems not to have occurred to her, but since she’s even more ditzy than, say, Diane Keaton, she’s probably unemployable).

She’s simultaneously beating off the matchmaking efforts of her sniffy neighbour and the lecherous advances of a ukulele-playing accountant (Lesley Manville and Jason Watkins respectively, valiantly shouldering the weight of hackneyed characters).

Then she inexplicably takes an interest in Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), the ursine and hirsute squatter whom she has contrived not to notice in the previous decade or two, despite his fondness for fishing and skinny-dipping in the ponds. And when greedy property developers seek to evict him, Emily finds her calling: instructing him in the art of developing the backbone she so plainly lacks. Despite no detectable chemistry, love blossoms.

Keaton’s grating mannerisms aside, there is some serious talent involved here: Joel Hopkins showed his ability to make the genre sing in 2008’s winning transatlantic romcom Last Chance Harvey, thanks largely to the skills of stars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, and writer Robert Festinger penned the excellent In the Bedroom for Todd Field.

But this film, which ditches the real-life outcome of Hallowes’ story, lurches clunkily from one forced moment to another. As a pitch for the votes of audiences whose starry eyes have not been dimmed by middle age, it never manages so much as a single authentic moment.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★

This article was first published in the August 5, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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