Half-way through watching Hampstead, something occurred to me. It’s director, Joel Hopkins, has perfected a simple but effective means to stay working. Take a bland, even rote story, with two characters at its centre, ones that are semi-interesting. Then place two charismatic actors as the leads, professionals who can build on their thumbnail roles and the pedestrian comedy-drama they’ve found themselves in. The result is something still pretty average but definitely watchable.
In Last Chance Harvey, Hopkins chose Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. With The Love Punch, it was Thompson again, that time paired with Pierce Brosnan. Hampstead stars Annie Hall herself Diane Keaton as Emily, a widowed American living in the titular London town. Unable to afford to live in her lavish apartment and fed up with the toxic behaviour of her upper-class friends (Lesley Manville, doing the Lord’s work with a thin as paper character), she is unhappy.
Yet things change when she meets Brendan Gleeson’s Donald, an Irish curmudgeon with a heart of gold. He has been living in Hampstead for 17 years. However, it’s not in a traditional sense. Donald lives in a shack built from hand in the private forests of the area. When Manville and her cronies propose a plan to kick the Irishman from his home, Keaton sides against them – all the while forming a tentative romantic bond with Donald.
Hampstead is undeniably creaky. There is not one surprise in the movie, from its opening to its inevitable finale of courtroom sermonising. Every character, with the slight exception of Adeel Akhtar’s lawyer, is as broad as a canyon. The direction is very point and shoot, coming across like a TV movie.
There also seems to be a strange reluctance to show romantic affection between old people. Every time Keaton and Gleeson are about to kiss, the camera cuts away – even in the final moments of the movie. It’s incredibly distracting – particularly in comparison to recent drama Aquarius, a very similar film about an older person being removed from their property. Starring Sonia Braga, that film was so fearless and electrifying in conveying the central character’s sensuality. Meanwhile with Hampstead, it’s like the filmmakers were afraid the simple image of two elderly people kissing would repulse viewers.
Yet, it is undeniable that the movie is easy to watch, the sole reason being Keaton and Gleeson. Right away, there is an element of national pride in watching an Irish acting legend lead a picture with Woody Allen’s ex-muse. Yet, its more than that. Keaton still retains that oddball, almost sexy charisma that made her such an A-lister. She makes even tired jokes like, “Do you drink a lot? Only when I’m drinking”, sing.
Meanwhile, Gleeson has his “outside raging pit-bull, inside cute puppy” act down pat at this stage. When Hopkins’ film gets to the courtroom grandstanding and Donald gets to take Manville’s lawyers down a peg or two, one does become invested. Ultimately, Hampstead may not be worth a cinema trip. However, it would make a rainy Sunday afternoon pass by quicker.
Hampstead is in cinemas from Friday June 23rd.