UK Release Date: 23rd June 2017
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Joel Hopkins
Writer: Robert Festinger
Starring: Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson, James Norton, Lesley Manville, Jason Watkins, Simon Callow
Synopsis: As her middle class friends try to convince her to date within their well-off and slightly nauseating social circles, a widow forms an unlikely bond with a man living on the Heath.
The British romcom is almost exclusively the domain of Richard Curtis, with his saccharine sensibilities and loving embrace of Hugh Grant‘s uniquely bumbling brand of charm. Now, though, arrives Hampstead from The Love Punch director Joel Hopkins. It’s a London-set romcom so sickly sweet that it would likely force Curtis to spit out chamomile tea all over his avocado toast. Given the charm of those involved and the intriguing true life story at its centre, this should have been much better.
Emily (Diane Keaton) is living alone in a posh Hampstead apartment, years after the death of her husband. Even though her son Philip (James Norton) is about to move away and her overbearing neighbour Fiona (Lesley Manville) encourages her to get back out into the romantic world, she is struggling more with financial problems. She goes on a handful of dates with kindly, but slightly creepy, accountant James (Jason Watkins) before spotting a strange man (Brendan Gleeson) living out on the Heath. When she later gets to know Donald, they begin to form a romantic relationship as he fights to keep his unconventional home.
Hampstead is a terrifically misguided film on a number of levels. It’s a movie about the richest of the rich in the epitome of leafy London, but opens with a radio broadcast about the crisis in affordable housing – as if that’s somehow relevant to the Waitrose-dwelling characters who form the central cast. There’s a cuteness to the narrative, consistently smoothing off all of the edges until there’s nothing left with any impact or potency that might have made this something other than two hours of syrupy stodge.
There’s some fun to be had, though, thanks to the pair of central performances. Keaton and Gleeson are both charming in their roles and, if they were given a more interesting script to work with, they may have been able to appear a believable and engaging screen pairing. Unfortunately, Hampstead delivers only cliché in the run-up to a courtroom battle bathed in the gloss of an inevitable happy ending. The film could’ve stopped there, but it instead tacks on an extended coda that culminates in a finale so preposterous that even the movie has no idea what to do with it.
There are also great performances lurking in the supporting cast. Lesley Manville is terrifically dislikeable as the over-preened wannabe socialite who seeks to control all of her friends in service of her husband’s business interests and James Norton does a nice comic turn as Keaton’s son. Jason Watkins, though, emerges as the star player with a skin-crawling turn as the accountant who doesn’t seem to have a problem doing hours of free work for the vague promise of some sort of “favour” somewhere down the line. A scene in which he wields a ukulele is more terrifying when he’s performing than when he actually intends to use the instrument as a weapon.
Despite some impressive work from the cast, Hampstead simply never rises above its gentle tone. There’s very little in the way of humour and even less to latch on to when it comes to emotional heft in the romance. With a touch more edge and a bit more focus on the politics, the true life tale could have packed real punch and would’ve enjoyed zeitgeisty relevance. As it stands, this one is only must-see in the same way that Waitrose thinks a cappuccino mousse is essential.
Pop or Poop?
Hampstead is a frustratingly nice movie without any semblance of edge or nuance. It’s helped by some sweet performances, but the script never delivers the goods comedically or when it comes to the central romance, which unfolds largely without conflict or challenge.
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