As unconvincing as romance gets
Hampstead 12A cert, 103 min
Dir Joel Hopkins Starring Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson, Lesley Manville, Alistair Petrie, Jason Watkins, Peter Singh, Simon Callow
Hampstead the film very plainly wants to do for Hampstead the place what Notting Hill did for Notting Hill. In reality, the kind of reputational PR job it performs feels closer to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby. This is a hair-moultingly twee and staggeringly unconvincing romantic comedy inspired by the true story of Harry Hallowes, a homeless man who was awarded the deed to a £2million plot of land on the fringe of Hampstead Heath in 2007 after squatting there for 20 years, largely unhindered.
Brendan Gleeson plays the tramp, here renamed Donald for the sake of a lousy joke, and Diane Keaton is Emily, a (wholly fictional) widow and long-term resident of the picture-book north London neighbourhood who falls in love with him. Why on earth this would happen is not a question the film seems to consider particularly pressing.
Still, Donald is less one of your common-or-garden derelict than a kind of modern-day Wordsworthian rustic, wearing suspiciously clean and hole-free knitwear. Gleeson looks about as much like an authentic hermit as he does Miss Venezuela, which is the first of many unsolvable problems the film creates for itself: if it presented its characters with even a shred of honesty, their romance would be even less plausible than it is in the entirely dishonest finished product. Donald’s tumbledown cabin has its own well-stocked lake and an immaculate kitchen garden – when Emily pops around for a cosy diner à deux, there’s fresh salad served in a wooden bowl, grilled fish, and wine served in elegant stemware – while his vagrant’s beard is so well-conditioned it could win a prize at Crufts.
Nevertheless, his presence on the Heath is a bugbear for Emily’s neighbour Fiona (Lesley Manville). It’s testament to the simpering awfulness of the screenplay that an actress of Manville’s calibre seems so defeated by every scene she appears in: Robert Festinger’s dialogue just gives her nothing to work with, so the character defaults to an objectionable stereotype.
Across these great, wind-torn expanses of half-wittedness saunters Keaton, dressed in blazers, scarves and berets designed to nod towards her iconic Annie Hall wardrobe, though never managing to transplant an ounce of that film’s comic briskness or panache to the project at hand. The director, Joel Hopkins, has had mixed success with second-chance midlife romances. This one, however, is a squib of an entirely new order of sogginess.
“Guess people just don’t like the way I live,” Donald mistily opines during a stroll through the nearby Highgate Cemetery, while Karl Marx’s gravestone glowers in the background. You can say that again. RC
Clean cut: Diane Keaton’s Emily falls for Brendan Gleeson’s Donald in Hampstead