Monday, 4 September 2017

Hampstead (2017) - Movie Review

A few times now in my reviews, I have mentioned a few ‘sentient red flags’ that have shown up in some films; actors whose recent track records are so consistently underwhelming that merely seeing them attached to films is enough to make sceptical. Usually, I’ve attributed that label to certain Aussie actors like Jai Courtney and Teresa Palmer, both of whom have been attached to some rather troubling works over the last few years. Well, it is my unfortunate duty to include another actor to that list: Diane Keaton. Over the last couple years, her live-action filmography has ranged from the bland with a touch of mean-spiritedness with And So It Goes to the casually spiteful and rather distasteful with Love The Coopers. Will today’s film show a change in that pattern, or will I have to see another lauded actor fall through the cracks of modern cinema? This is Hampstead.

The plot: Widow Emily (Diane Keaton), in the middle of trying to settle her late husband’s affairs, happens upon local hermit Donald (Brendan Gleeson). As Donald is in the middle of settling his own affairs, on the verge of being evicted from his shack in the woods, Emily decides to help him fight the case. But as they grow closer to each other, Donald starts to wonder the real intentions behind Emily’s actions.

Well, we’re off to a decent start already with the cast list; so much for my scepticism. Keaton starts off a bit out-of-place within the setting, but once the fact that she’s the only American in this story sinks in, she does very well with the material and allows for a lot of quiet dignity. Gleeson ends up playing quite a few ‘social hermit’ traits relatively straight, but the way he portrays his character’s want for independence is very resonant. It helps that his Irish brogue makes his dialogue sound that much warmer. James Norton as Emily’s son is okay in the few scenes he’s in, Lesley Manville maybe does a little too well as the nosy socialite, and Jason Watkins is honestly pretty creepy in that real-world “unwelcome advances” kind of way; that ukulele scene from the trailer might be one of the better bits of awkward comedy I’ve seen in a minute, and it works even better when put in context.

For a story that is this familiar (disaffected older person gains a new lease on life through connecting with an ‘outsider’), it’s a definite boon that the characters are as well-drawn as they are, starting with Emily. Emily essentially comes across like the older iteration of Kristen Stewart’s character from Personal Shopper: A woman who is guided through life by everyone around her to the point of worrying passivity. Through the… complicated relationship she has with her late husband, Emily was left with large debts and a weird attraction from people who are more looking for “favours” than actually helping her in any real way. Basically, she’s been forced into a bad position by someone who she can’t even confront about the whole mess, something shown in hilariously depressing detail when Emily goes to her husband’s grave.
Opposite her, we have Donald, a hermit who wants nothing to do with the larger world but isn’t exactly in a rush to call out people who are part of that larger world. He is more than happy to stay out of people’s ways, so long as they extend him the same courtesy. When the two collide, it echoes certain notions of personal freedom that usually translate in romantic films as “you need a man to change your life”. Now, there are traces of that to be found here, but it’s mainly from what the supporting cast says. Emily is just doing what she sees as the right thing to do and the romance that grows between her and Donald feels very natural as a result. That, and Keaton and Gleeson make for a rather cute couple.

Maybe it’s because certain events in the real world over the last couple months have gotten me thinking about this a little too much, but I’m beginning to notice a common thought pattern in some people. When Diane first hears about Donald’s living conditions, it’s through Fiona and her social group calling the shack an “eyesore” and campaigning to have it knocked down. Stories involving gentrification and the people it ends up affecting, most of the time for the worst, are hardly anything new, but the way this film depicts it feels weirdly contemporary. Going back to that thought pattern I mentioned, the people working against Donald here are basically trying to make him conform to their way of living. Even though his lifestyle invariably has nothing to do with theirs and ultimately doesn’t even affect it, they still seem to care enough about it to want him and his shack out of the picture.
It is honestly worrying how common this notion is; look at any social media discussion involving what the consensus considers to be “abnormal” and see just how many of them only find time to care about others when it gives them a chance to pass judgement. Not that Donald himself is an exception to this either: He doesn’t think too highly of everyone else in the same village, but he doesn’t care; he just wants to live his own life and let others go about living theirs. It’s sentiments like that that really made me connect with the character, as I honestly try to exhibit similar attitudes in real life myself.

There’s also another form of obligatory intervention that gets brought up quite a bit in this film as well: The charity case. It’s basically the same attitude as what I’ve already mentioned but on the other side of the spectrum: Same interference with the life of another, only being done out of a sense of goodwill rather than judgement. Of course, nowadays we have a more colourful and mildly sickening term for it: Virtue signalling.
In lieu of a long-winded rant about how much plain wrong floats around that term and the people who frequently use it, I’ll try and keep this brief. Throughout most of the film, the majority of characters, even Donald at certain points, think that Emily is helping him out because it’s her “latest project”; a pet cause that she can stick to until she gets bored with it and moves on to the next worthy cause of the month. Again, a lot of social media pundits tend to operate within the same parameters; look at how many people think just slapping a timely overlay on their profile pictures is going to solve the world’s problems.
However, what that way of thinking ends up doing is providing a purely cynical view of the world, one where people only do “the right thing” to either make others think that they are noble or to soothe a guilty conscience. It feels weird that I need to reiterate things like this but people are capable of doing things because they actually believe that they are the right thing to do. When Donald gets assaulted early on in the film, Diane steps in to help not because of any perceived reward, karmic or otherwise, but because… not everyone likes seeing other people get tossed around.
Hell, Donald’s other allies don’t even seem to care about him that much; one of his biggest defenders is a guy who seems to be on rather negative terms with him but, much like Donald himself, he doesn’t let his emotions cloud his sense of rationality. They argued quite a bit, and do so again in the courtroom, but they understand each other on a level that not even Emily seems to. Not agreeing with someone else’s choices is one thing, but it’s possible to do so without being a dick about it in the process. I’m not saying apathy is some kind of virtue or anything; I just think that we’d be better off if we focused on more pressing matters rather than how someone lives their life completely removed from ours.

All in all, while a rather basic romantic drama with a lot of hints of the familiar to it, I can’t help but show gratitude for this film’s stance of personal interference that, honestly, a lot of other people should be taking notes from. As a look into the idea of personal freedom, and the living roadblocks that tend to get in the way of such things, the acting combined with the rather warm dialogue makes for a very pleasant viewing experience. Maybe it’s because I’ve had quite a few conversations in the past few weeks involving people showing concern for other people’s lifestyles for all the wrong reasons, but I get the feeling that this film’s showing of “dislike as you wish but don’t be a dick about it” is something we could use more of nowadays.

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