Well, we can’t say we haven’t been warned. Reviewers of Hampstead are mostly unimpressed by this based-on-real-life wannabe rom-com, which tells the tale of Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), a vagrant who builds a shack on Hampstead Heath, and his unlikely relationship with Emily Walker (Diane Keaton), an American widow in financial straits. Indeed, Wendy Ide, writing for The Guardian, goes so far as to call it “a ghastly faux-mance,” while Peter Bradshaw, in the same newspaper, notes ruefully that “Richard Curtis’s style of comedy drama is very difficult to imitate.” But it’s The Telegraph’s Robbie Collins who really skewers the movie with a one-star review and the acerbic observation that “Donald’s tumbledown cabin has its own well-stocked lake and an immaculate kitchen garden – when Emily pops around for a cosy diner à deux, there’s fresh salad served in a wooden bowl, grilled fish, and wine served in elegant stemware – while his vagrant’s beard is so well-conditioned it could win a prize at Crufts.” And, while my socialist leanings mean I never thought I’d side with anyone writing for this particular Tory rag, I find I just can’t argue with him.
Okay, I can argue a bit. I think the single star is a little unfair. The acting is, for the most part, really very good (Keaton and Gleeson are both extremely engaging, while Lesley Manville somehow manages to transcend her role, which is, it seems, ‘under-developed cypher, with a bit of secretly-tragic rich bitch thrown in’). The plot is nicely stitched together, holding our attention throughout. But… oh dear. This is very much an outsider’s view of poverty, a romanticised vision of the ‘authenticity’ that being poor provides. What it reminds me of most is the Noel Streatfeild novels I read as a child, which I both loved and derided, amused as I was by their privileged depiction of what it meant to be poor. “They’ve got no money,” I’d tell my mum, raising my seven-year-old eyebrows. “So they’re down to just a couple of servants, a nanny and a cook and some woman who comes in from the village now and again. And they’ve got to take in lodgers, because they’ve got this massive house. So there’re a couple of university professors and an opera singer all sharing the space. They can’t afford their places at ballet school, so they have to get scholarships.” And then we’d laugh, putting on ‘posh’ voices, and braying, “How on earth are we supposed to manage, dahling, with just a nanny and a cook?” Well, we found it funny anyway. Maybe you had to be there.
I understand the comparisons to Richard Curtis, but I think they miss something important. It’s not just that he’s better at it (funnier, more charming), but that he doesn’t pretend to be making a social point. His films are unabashedly about those who have it all: they’re frothy, unrealistic depictions of a London that doesn’t really exist, but they don’t claim to be anything else. Hampstead has pretentions toward social commentary, but it doesn’t understand its own material.
It’s not just the improbably delightful home that Donald has constructed from old windows and planks of wood, it’s Emily’s so-called money worries that make me pause for breath. “After I’ve sold the flat and paid off all the debts,” she sobs, “I’ll be left with a little bit, not much, but enough to get me something small outside London, maybe.” Enough, it turns out, to buy a sizeable beamed cottage next to a river on the outskirts of a picturesque Cotswolds village. Ah, that kind of ‘little bit.’ Poor Emily. And after all the hard work she’s never done and the jobs she’s never had. Surely she deserves more than this? (Actually, she does seem to have travelled back in time to the 1960s – well, it is outside London, so what do I expect? – maybe the property prices hark back to that time too?)
In the end, sadly, Hampstead is just a load of ill-informed nonsense, and there’s not much to be said in its defence. The true story it’s based on must have been much grimier and more interesting, and it’s a real shame we can’t get to the nub of it. The rose-tinted worldview we are presented with here is far too shallow to convey the important truths that are hinted at but never properly explored.