Film Review by Paul Guest
Hampstead, directed by Joel Hopkins
Superficially this film looks like a cross between Notting Hill (for older people) and The Lady in the Van. Below the surface, however, it is surprisingly substantial and even has some political implications.
I’d been expecting to like it simply for its local colour, which indeed is quite plentiful. Apart from the Heath, there are shots of Hampstead High Street, Flask Walk, some side roads and courts, and even (briefly) the 18th-century painter George Romney’s house on Holly Bush Hill.
The film has been accused of making Hampstead look permanently sunny. In fact, when Emily Walters (Diane Keaton) first appears there is heavy rain outside. Admittedly the weather brightens by the time she befriends Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson). These, then, may be examples of the pathetic fallacy, or may not.
Emily first sees Donald, symbolically, from a distance while surveying the local area with binoculars. The relationship between them develops in a fairly complex way. This is dramatically satisfying, and so is the underlying tension between Emily and Fiona (Lesley Manville), hypocritical cheerleader of Emily’s fellow residents. When Emily eventually loses patience with her, she reveals a steely side beneath her previous passivity.
In siding with Donald against the odious snobs in her block of flats, she certainly isn’t passive. They are both outsiders: she as an American widow faced with finding a smaller home, he with his shack on the Heath. Though severely stigmatised by the local snobs, he is quite harmless. As he says, “I’ve always gone out of my way to keep out of the way.” This is a plea to ‘live and let live’ and thus for tolerance. He scores a surprising victory in the end, though, in fighting for his home – like the late Harry Hallowes, the ‘hermit’ of Hampstead Heath on whom he is modelled. Admittedly the film might stereotype Hampstead’s denizens.
Some critics seem to have thought the role of Donald unworthy of Brendan Gleeson. The actor, however, clearly respected his role and took it seriously. He “liked the idea that in a ‘fairy tale love story’ there was still room to consider vital issues over ownership of land, house prices and whether it is possible to live outside what society considers ‘normal’ today.” And he remarks, “The idea of providing or withdrawing shelter from someone in order to make money is just a crazy way of living.” (Reported in Camden New Journal) Gleeson does point out one limitation to the film: “There had to be an element of antisepticness applied when we made (Donald’s) home – we couldn’t make it like Harry’s, really.” Even so, it is truly shocking to see, at one point, that his home has been vandalised.
Sadly, James Norton’s role as Emily’s son Philip isn’t so worthy of him. Philip seems to serve no real purpose, except for disapproving of his mother’s plans. He plays a slightly comic role in one brief scene, when Donald suddenly appears before him and Emily just after having a bath. This, however, looks suspiciously similar to Spike’s (Rhys Ifans) shock appearance before the paparazzi in ‘Notting Hill’.
So Norton is under-used but Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson and Lesley Manville all give strong and memorable performances. It’s too easy to sneer at ‘Hampstead’. One reviewer calls it a “ghastly faux-mance” and remarks that the musical score “sounds like it was ripped from a feature-length insurance ad.” I think the film and the score deserve better.