Film review: Hampstead

David Gritten / 20 June 2017

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews Hampstead, a late life chalk-and-cheese romantic comedy.

They’re easily the most unlikely pair of lovers to hit cinema screens all year. In Hampstead, set in the affluent north London suburb, Diane Keaton plays Emily, a once well-heeled American widow now in straitened circumstances, while Brendan Gleeson is Donald, a reclusive Irish squatter who has illegally taken over a plot on picture-perfect Hampstead Heath and built a ramshackle but functional home from it.

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It is, you might say, a rom-com for seniors – though it needs to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Part of its story though, is rooted in fact: in 2007, a man named Harry Hallowes, who built a home of sorts on a small parcel of land on the ultra-desirable Heath, worth millions to potential developers, was granted the deed to his plot in a court case that made headlines.

Donald’s character, then, has a counterpart in real life; Keaton’s Emily, in contrast, is pure invention. For all this, screenwriter Robert Festinger (In the Bedroom) has given her a passable dramatic history; her late husband was a philanderer who made insufficient provision for her, and now she volunteers at a charity shop while her resources dwindle.

The reliably splendid Brendan Gleeson makes the most of Donald – proud, suspicious, perfectly unsociable and resistant to any notion he might need charity.  Emily’s a harder character to read, and Diane Keaton, a smart, witty actress who on screen can both delight and irritate, sometimes struggles to join the dots between her character’s contradictions. Sometimes she looks beaten down by loneliness and anxiety, but then she’s coquettishly eyeing herself in the mirror as she tries on one outfit after another – very much in the spirit of her best-known screen creation Annie Hall. You can’t help thinking: so this is what happened to Annie 40 years on.

Read our Q&A with Diane Keaton

We’re meant to be moved by her financial plight, but after all she’s living in a Hampstead apartment, and only looks poor as a church mouse when compared to her seemingly sympathetic but somewhat mean-spirited neighbours – led by the great Lesley Manville as Fiona, a patronising busybody.  (These neighbours, wouldn’t you know it, regard Donald’s tumbledown home as a ghastly eyesore on the Heath.)

Their unlikely romance takes off at the point Emily hears of plans to evict Donald so luxury townhouses can be built on the site; she wants to support him, whether he wants her to or not. Predictably, he doesn’t.

Indeed, much of the comedy in their earlier encounters is rooted in her pushing and him resisting this apparently wealthy American woman. Initially he doesn’t give her an inch: “Are you judging me?” Emily she asks him. “I’m trying to,” he tells her. “But you’re not giving me much to work with.”

In truth, Hampstead could do with more moments like that. In 2009, its director Joel Hopkins made a superficially similar film, Last Chance Harvey, with Dustin Hoffman cast as a struggling but charming American jazz pianist in London for his daughter’s wedding. Emma Thompson plays a kindly agency worker who interviews airport passengers for surveys.  They meet by chance, and their unlikely romance lifts off effortlessly.

Last Chance Harvey feels less contrived than Hampstead – which needs to stay close to the implausible but true story that inspired it. It’s also hard not to feel that Hopkins and Festinger have failed to understand some of the nuances of Hampstead. There’s real affluence here, of course, but many of its inhabitants are left-liberal Remainer types, who would instinctively sympathise with Donald’s underdog plight. Yet most of its residents (Emily’s gaggle of neighbours) are portrayed as hard-hearted and selfish.

A minor film, then, but not without its pleasures. It’s enjoyable to watch two veteran actors, chalk and cheese at first glance, sparring with each other and making the most of their contrasting skills.

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