It’s strange that two such individually loveable actors can so comprehensively fail to gel. Yet in Hampstead, inspired by the life of Harry “The Hermit” Hallowes, the lip service paid to the English housing crisis proves to be what saves the film from banality.
If you distil the life of Harry Hallowes down to a bare verdict, then it is portrayed with some accuracy. An Irishman who squatted on Hampstead Heath for 17 years, he won a court battle with developers to be awarded title to the land on which he had built his shack and vegetable garden.
Director Joel Hopkins and writer Robert Festinger do valiant work embroidering this story with romance, pretty landscapes and a tinkling, maddeningly twee soundtrack.
Emily (Keaton) is a recently widowed American in dire financial straits as she tries to maintain her pre-bereavement lifestyle in Hampstead’s gorgeous but eye-wateringly expensive postcode. Keaton is her singular self, right down to her idiosyncratic nervous quirks and Annie Hall-esque wardrobe.
Donald (Gleeson) is a fictional version of Hallowes, a grump with a heart of gold, who has been living for the past 17 years in a quaint shack hidden in the thickets of the Heath. Donald’s character is as renovated as his uber-cute shabby-chic shack, with Hallowes’ years of living rough thoroughly whitewashed.
Emily is an entirely fictitious character, a widow with dwindling finances and an equally poor social life dominated by her meddling neighbour Fiona (Lesley Manville), son (James Norton) and creepily lecherous accountant (Jason Watkins).
Emily’s interest in piqued when, while looking through vintage binoculars from the attic of her gorgeous Victorian apartment, she sights Donald bathing in a pond. When she learns of plans to evict him in order to clear the way for a luxury townhouse development, she takes up the fight to allow him to stay, whether he likes it or not.
He’s resistant at first, but eventually allows himself to be charmed by Keaton’s potent combination of quirky charm and pinstripe suits.
Underlying the romantic façade there is a faint protest against gentrification and the huge, ever-widening gulf between rich and poor. Unfortunately, this strength is overwhelmed by the lack of chemistry between Keaton and Gleeson and the slightness of the script.
The film is aimed at an older audience, but I fear the appeal of the Hampstead landscape and draw of two such eminent actors is insufficient to save it from the dread description of being charming and sweet.
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