London is the most expensive city to live in, in the world. Not only is rent extortionate, but gentrification is squeezing the soul out of the capital, losing some of its identity as new indefinable flats are constantly being built. So naturally the narrative to Hampstead – of a man sticking his middle finger up to the establishment and building a home in the park – should have great appeal, and resonate with viewers, and yet it delves into a world that feels so far removed from reality.
Based on real events, Diane Keaton plays Emily – an American widow pressured by her neighbour (Lesley Manville) to encourage the local community to support the endeavour to build a new apartment building across the road in front of the abandoned old hospital, based in the corner of Hampstead Heath. Sat in her attic, peering out the window with an old pair of binoculars, Emily spots Donald (Brendan Gleeson) taking a swim in the lake. Unable to divert her gaze she’s shocked to discover he lives in the park, in a shack built out of raw materials, completely, and utterly, living off the land. After introducing herself, she finds herself beguiled by her new friend’s impulsive, free-spirited nature, rubbing off on her and bringing about an excitement to her life. But just as she starts to fall for Donald, he becomes embroiled in a court case with many claiming he has no right to live in the way that he does.
Though peering into a society that seems to turn its nose up at anything that could be deemed common, it helps matters immeasurably to be adopting the outside perspective of the more quirky Emily – as the actresses’ distinctive, endearing personality traits shine through in this Joel Hopkins production. We all loved Annie Hall, and she wasn’t just playing that role, she was that role – and like so many filmmakers have done, Hopkins evidently allows her the licence to project herself onto the role, and the film is all the better for it. She’s let down by a lacklustre screenplay however, that feels so stilted and unnatural, and at times, unbearably cinematic. Least the chemistry between the leading duo is good, anyway. Unsurprising, as Keaton is a rather safe bet in this genre.
In spite of how bloody wonderful both leading actors are, sympathy is still somewhat difficult to achieve. Emily has some financial trouble, but she’s living in a multi million pound apartment overlooking Hampstead Heath. She could sell up and buy about four new houses in London. Poor sausage. And even Donald – of course it’s natural to root for his cause and admire his resourcefulness and bohemianism, but can you really just decide to build a house in a public park and claim it as your own? Plus if he wins his case, he becomes a millionaire. Could be worse, pal.
Hampstead has its charming moments, certainly, but ultimately frustrates as it abides so stringently to the tropes of the genre at hand. Quirky widow meets embittered man with a chip on his shoulder, but no wait he’s really nice – who saw that coming? But it’s that sense of comfortability and predictability that plays into the hands of the target audience (think the same sort of people who would go and see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) – and this film should appease them accordingly. So who am I to complain?
Hampstead is released on June 23rd.