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Hampstead like a glass of expensive Champagne that has lost most of its fizz

The astonishing true story of an Irishman getting squatter's rights to a £2 million plot of London real estate is sugar-coated in Hampstead, making it a chocolate-box tale of star-crossed lovers across the social divide that's pleasant enough though not exactly full of flavour, writes Damon Smith

Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson in Hampstead

CAST in the same mould as Richard Curtis's rom com Notting Hill, Hampstead is a twee tale of star-crossed lovers across the social divide, who find common ground in a court case over squatters' rights in verdant and des-res London NW3.

Robert Festinger's script is loosely inspired by the true story of a homeless Irishman called Harry Hallowes, who won title deeds worth two million pounds after living in a tumbledown wooden shack on Hampstead Heath for two decades.

Jaw-dropping truth is interwoven with sugar-coated fiction in Joel Hopkins's rose-tinted picture, which engineers romance between a socially awkward hermit and an American expat widow.

It's a chocolate box laden with first world problems and impeccably tailored strife.

We are supposed to muster sympathy for the heroine because she has been left in dire financial straits by her philandering husband. How does she cope with the stress of possible eviction? By window shopping a designer grey beret with an eye-watering £120 price tag. Oh woe is her.

Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson catalyse only the faintest flickers of sexual chemistry as the plot meanders towards its life-affirming resolution. En route there are flashes of earthy humour like when a rival for Keaton's affections feebly brandishes a ukulele as a weapon and Gleeson barks: "What are you going to do? Strum me to death?!"

A terribly polite plucking is more likely.

It has been a year since Emily Walters (Keaton) lost her no-good husband Charles and she has channelled her grief and rage into volunteer work at a local charity shop.

Other female residents of her apartment block, led by busy body Fiona (Lesley Manville), include Emily in their social gatherings and offer withering advice on remarrying at the earliest opportunity.

"If you wait too long, you shrivel up like some imported apricot sitting on the shelf in Waitrose," chirps Fiona.

She sets up Emily with creepy accountant James Smythe (Jason Watkins), who promises to clear the mounting debts – "no strings attached". After one uncomfortable date, Emily stares through her binoculars and spies Donald Horner (Gleeson) in his woodland retreat.

She becomes fascinated by the foul-tempered misfit and worms her way into his simple existence to the surprise of her well-to-do son, Philip (James Norton).

When greedy property developers serve Donald with an eviction notice, Emily coordinates the Save The Shack campaign with other do-gooder residents.

Hampstead is like a glass of expensive Champagne that has lost most of its fizz, yet still slips down pleasantly.

Keaton and Gleeson are an attractive odd couple, who are more convinced of their characters' suitability than us.

Watkins is skin-crawling as a bean counter with ulterior motives and an ensemble of British character actors fill out the largely forgettable supporting roles.

HAMPSTEAD (12A, 103 mins) Drama/Comedy/Romance. Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson, Lesley Manville, Jason Watkins, James Norton. Director: Joel Hopkins

RATING: 5/10


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