The pairing of bearish, formidable Irish actor Brendan Gleeson with professionally ditzy, ageless ingenue Diane Keaton as a romantic item may sound bizarre, but luckily for the London-set comedy-drama Hampstead, these yin and yang performers complement each other nicely, like tangy rhubarb and sweet, thick custard. It’s just a shame that the vehicle which has brought them together is so insipid. Offering a mix of property porn and sentimental liberal values that will appeal to residents of the titular North London suburb where the story is set (think New York’s Upper East Side) and similar demographics worldwide, it’s got enough elements in place to carve out a modest niche with viewers eligible for senior discounts at their local art house multiplex. Nevertheless, the lackluster direction by Joel Hopkins (Last Chance Harvey) and the diagrammatic script by Robert Festinger (In the Bedroom) do the package no favors, and it’s unlikely to prove to be any kind of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel-style breakout.
Although according to onscreen titles the story was inspired by actual events concerning an elderly Irishman named Harry Hallowes, also known as Harry the Hermit, who here becomes the film’s Donald Horner (Gleason), the plotting all pivots around Keaton’s character, an American woman of a certain age named Emily Walters. Oddly enough, Emily dresses just like the movie star Diane Keaton, still rocking the willowy-urchin-in-menswear look she made famous in Annie Hall back in 1977 with white shirts buttoned to the neck, baggy trousers and “quirky” hats. (One coat with an Arabic-style design embossed onto the fabric in a gorgeous shade of lapis lazuli is particularly covetable.)
A widow of one year whose adult son Philip (James Norton of Happy Valley) has long flown the nest, Emily works in a charity second-hand store but lives in an apartment decorated in expensive shades of taupe across the street from Hampstead Heath, a municipal parkland much loved by Londoners for its wild aspect and terrific hilltop views of the capital.
Her late husband turned out to have been a bit of turd who had been cheating on her before he died with a younger woman and who also squandered all their joint savings. Emily can’t quite face the idea of selling up and downsizing, although her snobby friend Fiona (Lesley Manville, making the best of a bad deal) has tried to help by fixing her up on a blind date with an amorous accountant (Jason Watkins, amusing).
However, something in Emily rebels against her bourgeois destiny and she finds herself drawn to Donald, a gruff, beefy loner who has been living in a self-made hut on the Heath for many years. After a somewhat incoherent series of emotional switchbacks that see Donald being alternately rude and then charming and then rude again for very flimsy, artificial reasons, the two become a couple — especially when Emily discovers what a sensitive, literary soul Donald is underneath all that facial hair and scowling.
Although the word isn’t actually used in the dialogue lest it alarm any attending Daily Mail readers, Donald is technically a “squatter” having occupied a plot of land that neither belongs to him nor was leased to him under a formal agreement with the owner. Many British viewers will be aware that as such his right to occupancy is protected effectively by laws dating back to the Magna Carta, legal points that the script barely bothers to explain for the benefit of non-British viewers. The important thing is that if he can prove that he’s lived in his home for more than 12 years, he would be entitled to the deeds, but Fiona’s smug property developer-husband (Brian Protheroe) is determined to have him evicted. Which side will Emily choose?
The outcome is hardly a surprise, although at least a mild effort is made to throw in a few emotional curveballs in the last stretch. Never mind: No one paying to see this film would expect anything less than a happy chug into the sunset for our lovers, bickering cheerfully all the way. The extemporized feel to some of the dialogue makes their rapport seem all the more credible and consequently there is something open-hearted and friendly about the performers that keeps the film watchable, for all its faults.
Production companies: A Motion Picture Capital presentation in association with Silver Reel of an Ecosse Films production
Cast: Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson, Lesley Manville, Jason Watkins, James Norton, Phil Davis, Simon Callow
Director: Joel Hopkins
Screenwriter: Robert Festinger
Producers: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae
Executive producers: Leon Clarance, Mark Woolley, Laure Vaysse, Jo Monk, Deepak Nayar, Alison Thompson, Mark Gooder, Claudia Bluemhuber, Ian Hutchinson, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, David C. Glasser
Director of photography: Felix Wiedemann
Production designer: Sarah Kane
Costume designer: Liza Bracey
Editor: Robin Sales
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Music supervisor: Mark Lo
Casting: Elaine Grainger
Sales: Cornerstone Films