Quirky charms of curmudgeon romance
My first bit of advice about the charming, timely romantic comedy-drama Hampstead is that if you don’t know anything about the real 21stcentury English hermit who is its loose inspiration, keep it that way.
This will have two benefits. I didn’t know Joel Hopkins’s film had a factual basis, so I followed it like a gentle (and at times not so gentle, such as in the courtroom scenes) thriller.
It also means you can ignore the critics who are upset that the magnificent Irish actor who is the on-screen hermit is not as unkempt or odorous as the real one was (he died last year). Well, I don’t believe Laurence Olivier ever drilled into someone’s teeth, not even Dustin Hoffman’s, but I still think he was entitled to take the role in Marathon Man.
All critics have their views and no one is right or wrong. Movies speak to different people in different ways. But I admit I was a bit irked to read, on Empire magazine online, that Hampstead was “squarely aimed at the older cinemagoer” and “just the bill for those seniors’ matinees where the ticket comes with a cuppa and a biscuit”.
Bollocks to that, as Hampstead Heath hermit Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson) might say. This film is good for anyone from age 20ish to 100 or more. See it with a cuppa by all means, though Donald would fill it with homemade wine, not tea. Hampstead
“Do you drink too much all the time?” he asks Emily Walters (a sublime Diane Keaton, Annie Hall pants in place), the American widow who stumbles uninvited into his life. “No,” she replies. “Only when I drink.” A bit earlier, when he gruffly says he wasn’t raised to be a complete halfwit, she muses, “Is there such a thing as a complete halfwit?”
It’s this sort of unexpected back-and-forth that softens Donald’s curmudgeonly exterior. When Emily first meets him, sitting below (not atop as a pillarist should) Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery, she says, “I hope I am not disturbing you.” “Too late for that,” he replies.
It’s an exchange that goes to the heart of the two characters. Donald is a man who “lives as he chooses to”, but who knows “people don’t like the way I live”. Emily is a smart, sensitive, strong woman, less vulnerable than she seems. She is polite to the people around her but she sees the vacant spaces in daily life. There’s a civilised awkwardness here between the nonrecluse characters that is spot-on.
Donald squats in a small shack on the heath, not far from an old hospital that developers want to demolish and replace with luxury apartments so wealthy people can buy a “hideaway on the heath”. They want “the tramp” removed but he’s not leaving his Steptoe and Son-designed hideaway without a fight.
Emily lives in a portered apartment block and works in a charity shop. She has serious financial problems and is worried she will lose her home.
This goes to the timeliness of this movie set in quaint London: the property market, run by investors, is a far from quaint problem for lots of people in booming Western cities.
There’s not a lot of backstory for Emily or Donald, which I like. We come to know them as the film goes on. We learn Emily’s husband died a year ago. When she visits his grave the result is surprising and brilliant. Donald and Emily are an odd couple, no doubt about it, but romance has a tolerance for oddness.
English director Hopkins has a fondness for unpredictable Anglo-American romances. He paired the aforementioned Hoffman, with all his teeth, and Emma Thompson in his 2008 film Last Chance Harvey.
American scriptwriter Robert Festinger made an impact with Todd Field’s violent drama In the Bedroom. This is a softer film, but it is distinguished by dialogue that sounds real. It is droll and moving, and sometimes angry.
There are pleasing supporting roles, such as Jason Watkins as the accountant who helps, and tries to woo, Emily. His musical contribution to her surprise birthday party is hilarious in a cringe-inducing way.
Simon Callow is the judge who hears the Donald v Property Investors case and, in an absolute highlight, Phil Davis is the “arse” (Donald’s description) summoned as a witness. His evidence is cranky and moving.
Hampstead is about a man who chooses his own path, one I sympathise with.
But like the absorbing recent book about the Maine hermit of 27 years, The Stranger in the Woods, it also shows that such a life can be taken too far and that such a person can be insensitive to the emotional needs of others, to the point of cruelty.
Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson in