Director: Joel Hopkins
Screenwriter: Robert Festinger
Runtime: 102 mins.
Australian release date: 17 August 2017
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 2 August 2107.
Hampstead is based on the true story of a man called Harry Hallowes, aka Harry the Hermit, who fought for the right to remain on land that he’d squatted on for over 12 years and ear-marked for development. It’s a low-key, middle-aged, protest movie combined with an odd-couple rom-com that may appeal to older audiences but will be totally over-looked by everyone else. Set in the beautiful enclave of London’s N.W.3 near the famous heath and directed by Hampstead-raised Joel Hopkins, the film has been described as “funny, uplifting and full of heart” but it is also a little trite. Many of the main characters resemble caricatures depicting a section of upper middle-class British society that lives in a world of its own.
Emily Walters (Dianne Keaton) is an American widow who’s been left with her philandering husband’s debts and who seems to be slightly away with the pixies as she grapples with her lonely existence, her only reprieve being the hours she spends volunteering in the local charity shop. Keaton plays her as though she’s Annie Hall retired to north London! She lives in a lovely old apartment building whose residents are all of a similar ilk; one in particular, Fiona (Lesley Manville), is a bit of a busy-body who heads up the tenants’ association. Her husband also happens to be a developer who has his greedy eyes on an old stately home on the edge of the heath that he wants to convert into flats. From her attic Emily spies a ramshackle Irish gentleman, Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), living in an equally ramshackle hut in the grounds of the property. She calls the bobbies when she spots a couple of thugs attacking the man and, when her curiosity gets the better of her, follows this up with a visit to see how he is. One thing leads to another and soon Emily commences a relationship with Donald, much to the chagrin of her son, Philip (James Norton). Their union also gets up the noses of Fiona and the tenants’ association and, before you can say ‘green ban’ there’s a full-on community movement to save the plucky Irishman from eviction.
Emily appears to enjoy her life now that it comes with a purpose (saving Donald) and purchases a beret that remains firmly clamped on her head for most of the rest of the film - Annie Hall again. It made me wonder if this new accessory du jour is an homage to the actress, who’s known for her off-kilter sartorial look. Keaton and Gleeson have their moments but their relationship is largely bloodless. They do their best with Robert Festinger’s lacklustre script but the story is played for light-hearted laughter and Stephen Warbeck’s twee music is equally hollow. The real Harry’s battle questioned the individual’s right to drop-out of society and live life with a small ecological footprint that didn’t interfere with anyone else, however, in this age of entitlement where developers rule, he ended up having to go all the way to the courts to fight for his ‘squatters’ rights.’ The best things about Hampstead are the fine ensemble cast of British character actors and the footage of the picturesque village and its famous heath in one of London’s most beautiful boroughs. They’re almost worth the price of admission.