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Hampstead Review

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Widowed Emily (Diane Keaton) is adrift and struggling to keep her flat in London’s high-toned Hampstead Village when she becomes intrigued by the self-sufficient recluse, Donald (Brendan Gleeson), she discovers living in a shack in a quiet corner of Hampstead Heath. Curiosity leads to friendship and unexpected late-life love.

★★★★★

Diane Keaton’s forte, her distinctively nervous, awkward charm, has worn beautifully well and borne her along triumphantly in an astonishingly long reign as a romantic-comedy queen —the Elizabeth II of romcom, if you will. But it’s the great Brendan Gleeson who’s the biggest surprise here. He’s shown us intimations he can be tetchy but loveable — in The Guard, at least, he was a character you could conceivably hug, and maybe the In Bruges guy — but in this small, pleasant but unremarkable affair he’s cute, breezy and bright-eyed even when he’s in grumpy mode. He may look like a breaching, gingery whale emerging from a bathe in one of the Hampstead ponds, but this is a man you would happily hang out with on a picnic under Karl Marx’s Highgate Cemetery headstone or a stroll through the British Museum.

A slight, modestly sweet and mildly charming affair.

The story here — written by Robert Festinger (principally known for the powerful Todd Field film In The Bedroom — an entirely different kettle of fish) — is said to have been “inspired” by the life of Harry ‘The Hermit’ Hallowes. Interpret that as “very loosely” inspired. Harry was also an Irishman who lived rough on Hampstead Heath for years and successfully challenged property developers by claiming squatters’ rights, receiving title to his little shack and patch of land. Harry had brushes with the film world, having done odd jobs for locals including Terry Gilliam, but it’s probably safe to assume he was less fragrant than Gleeson’s dear Donald and certainly did not find romance in a Diane Keaton shape. Harry’s recent death will at least spare him the intrusions of location tourists, who may be inspired by the film’s invitingly photogenic use of the Heath and environs to trample about much as determined sightseers still do in Notting Hill, asking in vain for directions to Hugh Grant’s bookshop.

The least credible side of things comes, oddly, in the Emily character. She’s an American who has lived in London for decades yet seems to have no friends or interests. Or even a cat. She also has no visible means of support — did the philandering husband squander their assets? — and an unconvincing relationship with her ever-so-English son (James Norton). Even if one can believe how helpless and apathetic she is about her finances and her lack of purpose, it’s preposterous she is timidly cowed speechless by the bullying, supposed chums who live in the same mansion block. At least Lesley Manville is terrific as the caricature villain of the piece — there is no quarrelling with the quality of the supporting cast — and one can embrace Emily’s campaign to save Harry’s hut from being razed for a new luxury development.

It seems likely it was hoped this would attract the same set who made The Lady In The Van a hit, although that had more going for it. It’s closer to director Hopkins’ previous films with stars “of a certain age” — Last Chance Harvey with Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, and The Love Punch, in which Thompson was paired with Pierce Brosnan. Fans of those must be limited, but have at it, nan.

This slight, modestly sweet and mildly charming affair squarely aimed at the older cinemagoer is just the bill for those seniors’ matinées where the ticket comes with a cuppa and a biscuit.

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