There’s one tradition in the arts that I’ve always gotten a kick out of, and that’s picking an accomplished artist (whether it be an actor or writer or director or some such), and then finding a cheaper, or less impressive version of that accomplished artist to ironically stand alongside him or her.
For as long as celebrities and idols have been around, we have always insisted of comparing them with other celebrities and other idols, citing them as “The poor man’s equivalent of this guy”. For the celebrities themselves, it can be the biggest slap in the face imaginable – especially when the phrase seems to imply plagiarism. But for those applying the “poor man” label, it is as fun as a game of Truth or Dare. I know that I always succumb to giggling fits every time I’m reminded that Christian Slater is the poor man’s Jack Nicholson, or whenever someone points out to me that David Walliams is the poor man’s Roald Dahl. But the poor man comparison that makes me laugh the most is one that I heard just recently – “Joel Hopkins: the poor man’s Richard Curtis.” Whoever made that comparison must be the wisest and wittiest man in the world – for when you think about it, it’s so, so true!
Since his debut in 2001, Hopkins has pretty much made a name for himself copying or (to be fairer on the guy) paying homage to the films of Richard Curtis. Hopkins’ pictures often revolve around quirky premises (such as unlucky people from two different worlds falling in love), are set in the most obscure places, feature characters who are socially awkward or socially bitter, and try to preach about never judging a book by its cover, or how beautiful love is – exactly the same formula that Curtis has based his career around. Just about every film on Hopkins’ (short) filmography, such as Last Chance Harvey (2008) and Jump Tomorrow (2001), absolutely scream “Notting Hill wannabe!” or “Four Weddings and a Funeral knock-off!”. His latest film, Hampstead, is certainly no exception.
Based loosely on the life and struggles of hermit Henry “Harry” Hallowes, the film tells the story of Emily Waters (played by screen legend Diane Keaton), an American-born widow living (rather dismally) in the London suburb of Hampstead. During a visit to the local cemetery, Emily encounters Donald (Brendan Gleeson), an apparent homeless man living in a shack in the park opposite her apartment building. The two form an unlikely romance and a passionate alliance, as they fight against money hungry property developers trying to demolish Hampstead’s heritage buildings, as well as trying to evict Donald from his rightful “home”. What started off as a simple friendship between an outspoken eccentric, and a woman desperately looking for happiness in her life, soon becomes an age old battle for human rights over greed and ruthlessness.
Despite the promising premise, Hampstead, in my opinion, is okay at best. It’s not exactly terrible, but it’s not something that exceeds your expectations either. It leaves you with mixed emotions, and uncertainty of whether the film was a good experience for you or not.
The film’s cons are its portrayal of capitalism and the establishment, and, unsurprisingly, Hopkins’ attempt at mimicking the style of Richard Curtis. The plagiarising (or “homage-making” if you want to cut the guy some slack) makes the story feel eye-rollingly clichéd and uninspired, the screenplay robbed of heart and effort, and the characters as thin as paper.
The portrayal of the rich, government officials and the people of Hampstead in this film is unfair, unrealistic and immature. The characters that you see trying to evict Donald from his shack, or annoying the crap out of Emily during her commute to work, are given no human qualities at all, and are instead reduced to cartoonish, moustache twirling villains that make you want to throw your Coke at the screen (and not in a fun audience participation way). Though some people with wealth and power can indeed be the biggest pricks in the whole wide world, to dismiss them as heartless oaths is childish and cruel! If Hopkins and screenwriter Robert Festinger have a gripe with those people (and believe me, we all do), surely there must be a better way to bring up the issue than this! Surely there are more civilised methods of starting a dialogue about current affairs than using cinematic manipulation.
The film’s pros are its political messages and its performances from its two leading actors. Gleeson and Keaton bring fantastic and believable chemistry to their roles, with their playful banter and one-liners leaving you grinning from ear to ear like a lovesick teenager. And despite the mean spirited portrayal of Britain’s politicians and higher classes, the social commentaries that their presence inspire is, arguably, the most impacting thing seen on the silver screen this year. The political points that are made throughout the story are surprisingly fair in their argument, encouraging you to stop and analyse the world you thought you knew. It makes you ponder the status quo, and pay more attention to the consequences of industrial progress. From the taboos of homelessness, to the hypocrisy of elitism, Hopkins, as well as Festinger, do not shy away from the biggest problems corrupting the west today. What Hopkins lacks in originality and 3-dimential antagonists, he makes up with his case for social reform (an element that Richard Curtis certainly hasn’t put in his movies, as far as I’m aware – now there’s an angle Hopkins should start exploring more).
Hampstead is an average piece of work. There are so many things to like about it, but there are also so many things to hate about it. It’s one of those films that leaves your emotions all over the place. If you like a good commentary about present events, and are fans of Brendan Gleeson and/or Diane Keaton, then by all means go and see it. But if you’re hoping to see a first rate romantic comedy with a great story and great supporting characters, then this probably won’t be the film for you. Best to stay home and watch Love Actually (2003) instead.
Inspired and based upon by the true story of the ‘Hampstead Hermit’, Harry Hallowes.
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