The British film industry is much more diverse than Hollywood when it comes to making films for a broad audience demographic, which in turn provides greater opportunities for actors of all ages to secure substantial roles. Such is the case with Hampstead, a quaint romantic comedy set in the gentrified part of London from which the film takes its name. Directed by Joel Hopkins (Last Chance Harvey), who grew up in Hampstead, and inspired by the life of the late Harry Hallowes, this is certainly not the first film to feature the picturesque Hampstead Heath, although none have featured the inner-city nature reserve so prominently. Hallowes famously claimed squatter’s rights on a small parcel of land on the Heath and was awarded title to the site on which he lived in a ramshackle cabin after proving he had been residing there for more than 12 years. As is to be expected, the film takes some liberties in the telling of Hallowes’ battle to save his home from the scourge of developers, but it still emerges as an enjoyable underdog story.
In the film, Brendan Gleeson (The Guard, Calvary) is Donald Horner, an eccentric loner who, having lived harmoniously on Hampstead Heath for 17 years, is facing eviction from the property by developers looking to construct an apartment complex on the site. Diane Keaton is Emily Walters, an American widow (and a completely fictional character) who lives opposite the Heath and spies Donald from her attic window amid her own struggles to address the dire financial straits in which she finds herself following the death of her philandering husband 12 months earlier. Curiosity leads Emily to track down Donald who, of course, turns out to be a gentle man beneath his gruff exterior. Such a friendship never existed in real life, but this version of events sees Emily urging Donald to fight for the right to remain on the land, an alliance that puts her at odds with her snooty friends. The antagonism that Donald experiences from the local community is another aspect of the film that diverges from real life because Hallowes, by all reports, enjoyed a friendly relationship with the local residents, including filmmaker Terry Gilliam.
Keaton imbues Emily with the nervous, awkward charm (and quirky style) that she has brought to so many great characters, although her apathy, lack of motivation and timid acceptance of the bullying dished out by neighbour and so-called friend Fiona (Lesley Manville) is infuriating at times, not to mention her willingness to suffer the lecherous overtures from creepy accountant James (Jason Watkins), a truly grotesque individual who seems out of place here. Whilst his character is obviously an oddity in the part of London that houses more millionaires than anywhere else in Britain, Gleeson never presents Donald as being somebody for whom we should feel sorry. He is quite a likeable guy who just prefers to be alone; until Emily comes along of course. The only other character of note is James Norton as Emily’s son Phillip, who pops up a couple of times to remind Emily how hopeless she is, while Hugh Skinner, Alistair Petrie and Simon Callow also feature in minor roles.
An amiable, light-hearted comedy, Hampstead is a tale of two people who find each other in somewhat contrived circumstances and, even though Jenkins and scriptwriter Robert Festinger (who also penned the far superior and decidedly darker In the Bedroom) take a softly-softly approach with regard to the pressing issue of the gentrification blight that is engulfing cities around the world, there is a certain pleasure to be found in hanging with these two characters as they set forth on a path to self-realisation and a second chance at happiness. Sure, the ending is somewhat twee, but the two leads bring enough charm to compensate for any shortcomings.