Harry Hallowes, who died two years ago aged 79, was an Irishman who lived in a makeshift shack in a small corner of Hampstead Heath. He holed up there for so long that in 2007 he was awarded the title deed. Perhaps predictably, this eccentric hermit was christened “Britain’s richest tramp” by the media.
Hampstead (★, 12A, 103 mins), a romantic comedy loosely inspired by this real life story, sees Brendan Gleeson playing Hallowes stand-in Donald Horner, who finds his solitary existence rudely interrupted. First, by Diane Keaton’s American widow Emily Walters, who becomes intrigued by the man living an artisan loaf’s throw away from her flat in a well-appointed Hampstead mansion block, and then by property developers keen to get their grubby mitts on Donald’s patch of squatted land.
Director Joel Hopkins and writer Robert Festinger deserve credit for bringing a love story about older people to the fore. Unfortunately, that’s all there is to recommend this otherwise limp and cynically conceived movie. Keaton and Gleeson, who are both fine actors, manage to create something approaching chemistry as Emily and Donald’s relationship develops over picnics, fishing and home-made wine, but they’re working at all times in opposition to a deathly script.
This a story about modern London (albeit a rarefied corner of our capital), but it might as well be set on Mars, so alien does it feel to our contemporary world. None of the characters are in any way believable. Donald is the best-dressed tramp you’ll ever meet (with a lovely vegetable garden, to boot). Emily seems intelligent and confident, yet bafflingly allows herself to be bullied by a supporting cast of hideous characters, from Leslie Manville’s snooty neighbour to Jason Watkins’s slimy accountant, who are nothing but thinly drawn caricatures (I’ve seen pantomime horses with more psychological depth). Furthermore, the film’s cinematography, awash for the most part with bright sunlight, lends proceedings a weird, unworldly glow.
This lack of authenticity in a way feels appropriate because Hampstead is so obviously a knock-off. Even down to the place-name checking title, it’s clearly an attempt to ape the success of Notting Hill, but it fails badly. Richard Curtis films are generally not my bag – all of that mawkish sentimentality brings me out in a nasty rash – but at least they manage, to some extent, to create ensembles of relatable characters and plausible interactions. Plus, Curtis knows how to crack a decent joke or two. Hampstead struggles in vain to get the “rom” right, while the comedy is of a consistently mirthless variety.
It’s sad to see Keaton, who starred in the greatest rom-com of all, Annie Hall, trapped in Hampstead, a film that expects us to find the sight and sound of a grown man playing the ukulele utterly hilarious. I wasn’t laughing, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one.
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