Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson aren't an obvious match; despite their combined lovability, this slender romcom doesn't prove otherwise.
It’s a situation that has flummoxed many a casual matchmaker. You have two single friends — both sweet, smart, eminently dateable people — whom you’re determined to bring together. Yet when they come face-to-face over dinner, there’s no spark, no lighting-up of the eyes, just amiable, slightly awkward propriety: It turns out these two fine catches have nothing in common but your own affection for them. The cinematic equivalent of this frustrating scenario unfolds in “Hampstead,” a gentle, attractively appointed and phonier-than-thou Britcom in the Richard Curtis mold, in which the individually delightful Brendan Gleeson and Diane Keaton try their damnedest to convince us they’re made for each other. Their odd, ensuing shuffle might modestly engage the “gray pound” audience on home turf, though Stateside prospects for this Weinstein Co. release are dimmer: At any rate, residents of the film’s eponymous North London locale needn’t fear a tourist rush akin to the Notting Hill invasion of 1999.
That the film’s two lovable stars never quite click may come down to miscalculated star chemistry, but it’s hard to tell with a thin, too-cute screenplay (by U.S. scribe Robert Festinger, several thousand miles in all senses from his Oscar-nominated work on “In the Bedroom”) that plays to neither actor’s wryest or wonkiest strengths. As a widowed American expat socially and financially adrift in Hampstead’s leafy, eye-wateringly posh cobbled lanes, Keaton dons her signature androgynous “Annie Hall” duds throughout, which only underlines how much less endearingly idiosyncratic the character wearing them is by comparison. Meanwhile, as the crusty but gold-hearted Irish squatter she takes up first as her personal cause, and then as something rather more personal than that, Gleeson plays along with a winning brogue and a bemused twinkle, his most soulful actorly complexities scarcely tapped.
For director Joel Hopkins — at least on better form here than in 2013’s rickety heist comedy “The Love Punch” — “Hampstead” is a clear attempt to recapture the Transatlantic sparkle of his 2008 charmer “Last Chance Harvey,” in which Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman made low-key lonelyhearts magic in the English capital. Yet that film (written, to far more persuasive effect, by Hopkins himself) etched entire lives’ worth of heartache into its brief encounter; here, there’s precious little sense of the personal history that has led Emily (Keaton) and Donald (Gleeson) into their respective ruts.
For the last 17 years, we are told, the free-living Donald has been camping out illegally in the verdant thickets of London’s vast Hampstead Heath park, building himself the kind of homely shack that even Beatrix Potter might deem overly twee. Festinger’s script is inspired by the true-life story of Harry Hallowes, the Heath squatter ultimately granted the deed to his multi-million-pound plot in a headline-making 2007 court case; Hallowes’ storied past of hard knocks and homelessness, however, is tidily left out. Emily, on the other hand, is a wholly fictitious creation, and just as sketchily imagined. We meet her a year after the death of her philandering husband, finances dwindling as she whiles away her days as a charity shop volunteer, her social life seemingly limited to unwelcome interventions by her busybody neighbor Fiona (Lesley Manville, valiantly reaching for nuance in a plummy caricature), her half-interested adult son (James Norton) and her timidly lecherous, ukulele-strumming pro bono accountant (Jason Watkins, manfully leading the film’s creepiest subplot).
Only in a sudden, loopy graveside rant to her dead spouse do we get a flash of how Emily’s life has played to this point: When Fiona admonishes her not to “shrivel up like some imported apricot sitting on the shelf in Waitrose,” one wonders if her married years were really any juicier. Yet a chance sighting of Donald’s rustic dwelling across the road from her plush Victorian apartment piques Emily’s curiosity; when she catches wind of the authorities’ plan to evict him in favour of a luxury townhouse development, she resolves to fight his corner, whether he likes it or not. Like it he doesn’t at first, but the Keaton formula of gumption, goofiness and crumpled pin-stripe suits can only be resisted for so long. Soon enough, they’re making the kind of genteel Sunday-afternoon whoopee that doesn’t require either party to remove their calico shirt.
There are whispers here of satirical protest against the spreading, much-decried gentrification of the Big Smoke, but “Hampstead’s” concerns are cosier ones — with even its stray moments of darkened mood hurried along by Stephen Warbeck’s ever-present, maddeningly dainty score. Gleeson and Keaton, for their part, play this bourgeois rags-to-tweed fairytale with such good humor that one is fleetingly able to overlook the frank bogusness of the mechanics that bring them together. There’s pleasure to be had in hanging out with these two wily, weathered actors, even as the flyaway characters they’re playing fail to illuminate each other in any way. “Are you judging me?” Emily asks the taciturn Irishman early on in their courtship. “I’m trying to, but you’re not giving me much to work with,” he replies — one of the quicker lines in Festinger’s script, but also one that essentially gets at this brightly mounted, perkily performed and stubbornly sexless film’s key struggle.