“…there’s a ‘twee, trying too hard to be ever-so-British and charm our friends across the pond’ alarm that’s bleating incessantly in my head. And sadly, for good reason.”
The metaphorical curtain rises. An orchestra sets the mood with a little light, playful music. A young boy scampers enthusiastically across the grass, his kite flapping about above him. The camera tracks his eager progress, panning purposefully past an assortment of strategically-positioned extras going about their director-allotted activities, and the camera ultimately tilts upwards into the blue heavens above.
The scene is set…
Only, there’s a twee, trying too hard to be ever-so-British and charm our friends across the pond alarm that’s bleating incessantly in my head. And sadly, for good reason. Sighing and blowing air out of my cheeks already, there’s a nagging inevitability about what’s to follow, and we’re only two minutes in.
Welcome to Joel Hopkins’ Hampstead. A little tale based to some extent upon true events, by all accounts.
Irishman Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), is a man living a life of subsistence in a ramshackle hut on Hampstead Heath. This has been his home for some seventeen years but he now faces the very real possibility of eviction, for there are real estate development plans earmarked for his particular plot of land. Unfortunately for Donald, this is land for which he has absolutely no legal claim, having effectively squatted there all these years.
And then there’s Emily (Diane Keaton), an American lady living in a flat just off the heath, opposite his plot. She’ s a good egg, but the same can’t necessarily be said of her superficial bunch of busy-body friends who share the building with her. Very much the twitching curtains brigade. Hyacinth Bucket – with money. Perhaps a little weak-willed, Emily is frequently manipulated into their petty, trivial fussing and scheming.
Since the death of her adulterous husband, Emily has found herself in dire financial straits, and can no longer afford to live here. With proactive decisiveness, however, she sets about addressing this issue. Rummaging around in her attic she looks for items that she may be able to sell and stumbles upon an old pair of binoculars, through which she spots Horner splashing about in the pond on the heath opposite.
A combination of Emily’s intrigue, and a couple of convenient plot devices leads to the pair eventually meeting up. Observing Donald’s ‘alternative’ lifestyle’ induces something of an epiphanal moment in Emily. Not only does she then resolve to change herself, but the pair soon begin something of a romance.
But of course this is well-to-do leafy Hampstead, and dating the village ‘tramp’ – as it were – is somewhat frowned upon, particularly by Emily’s gaggle of well-healed friends who are appalled and rather perturbed by Donald’s appearance in the building one day.
With Donald’s impending eviction, Emily’s potential financial ruin, and the prospect of them both becoming social pariahs, it’s fair to say that these are testing times for our unlikely couple.
Fear not though folks, for this is rose-tinted, slightly sickly British rom-com territory.
You can see what Hampstead is striving to achieve, but there’s a pervading, overriding sense that everything that it brings to the table has been done before, and crucially, better.
Arguably it ‘s a mildly charming piece in places, and though occasionally slightly amusing, it is only fleetingly so; very much in that gentle inoffensive manner exemplified by the likes of long-running British comedy ‘institution’ The Last of the Summer Wine. Comedy for people that have had heart attacks, if you will. As a full-length feature film, Hampstead, humour-wise, is very much an extrapolation of this concept.
It’s not terrible. That should be said. It’s actually perfectly watchable in that ‘not much else on, on a rainy Sunday afternoon’ manner, and in Brendan Gleason and Diane Keaton, the lead roles are in safe and capable hands, with the pair making the most of what’s on offer. Indeed, if truth be told, it’s very much their input alone that truly holds this lightweight piece together.
Ultimately though, there’s a flimsiness about the narrative, a tiresome inevitability regarding the outcome, and Joel Hopkins’ tendency to overly stereotype both characters and setting is both clumsy and off-putting.
I suspect that the aim of the game here was to turn the wider world on to yet another quirky, charming British enclave of society – as was so successfully achieved with the likes of Notting Hill.
Whilst Hampstead may well appeal to those in far-flung lands whose perception of British comedic drama is based solely upon an imported diet of Benny Hill and Are You Being Served re-runs – perpetuating the unshakeable identity of quirky Brits and their endearingly quaint ways – Hopkins’ efforts to engrain Hampstead into the hearts of the many unfortunately bears more similarities with Alan Partridge’s failed attempts to “really put Norwich on the map” via the still yet to be commissioned, and almost certainly naff detective drama, Swallow.