If the sea of silver hair had not given it away as I stepped into the cinema to see Hampstead, a joke about shrivelled apricots sitting on the shelf of Waitrose early into said film certainly did, assuring me – a 19 year old male – that this film was not even remotely intended for my consumption. ‘Transformers is on next door’, I’m sure they imagined, as I shuffled into my seat, complete with a few tuts from the pensioners as I dug into the bottom of the bag for my cinema snack of choice. However, by the time the credits rolled to Joel Hopkins‘ latest film, I was the tutter, realising I’d just sat through another entry into the world’s most repressive genre.
Hollywood blockbusters are frequently dismissed as a derivative genre, lacking inspiration and originality. It is said that studios thrust the same template and well-worn cycle onto audiences, with each film wrapped in franchise-friendly packaging and complete with unique enough flourishes to decorate and convince audiences to part with their hard-earner cash in order to see Reboot Number 158 of the year. Particularly during the summer blockbuster window, the naysayers are out in their droves. Nevertheless, I would much rather contend with a mediocre blockbuster than another soul-crushing and unimaginative ‘first world problem’ drama aimed at more the mature audiences. And that is not just my age speaking.
At least most blockbusters are fun (or at the very least entertaining in patches), a trait Hampstead – and the wider genre – woefully lacks. A slapdash job to assemble the latest release for the middle-class silver surfers to see, Hampstead feels like it has been carelessly stitched together from elements that have worked in other mature dramas before. It is fluffy (which is one of the highest compliments I can pay it) and a light afternoon at the cinema, but it is so forgettable – and easily merges into any other genre entry from the previous half a decade – that coming to write this review a mere handful of hours after I endured it, is a difficult task.
What strikes me, though, on the opposite end of the spectrum and as someone looking towards the film in a more analytical way, is how conventional, rigid, and structured these films actually are. Hampstead is no different; the next in a long line of OAP-aligning releases tapping into that disposable income. The lack of spirit or inspiration in these films is completely staggering and, unfortunately for Hampstead, it is the one baring the brunt of my frustration.
A kite soars in the air and a child runs through the green grass of the titular Hampstead, a sun-kissed village as English as they come, before the first word of Joel Hopkins‘ latest film is even said. Even as the title screen is ushered in, you know precisely the film you are about to watch: it features a middle-aged widowed woman who meets an unconventional man (that much I got from the trailer, admittedly) and the two, whilst falling for each other, must overcome certain obstacles (disapproving friendship circles and personality clashes, dwindling time, etc.) to make their love work, as they both try to acclimatise to the other’s opposing lifestyle. Believe it or not, you also know the ending of this well-trodden tale too.
You already know the story (and the ending)
I’m sorry if you think I’m spoiling anything for you here, but if you have even seen a couple of films remotely similar to this, you already know exactly what will happen.
Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson tackle the North London village as Emily, a widower using her time volunteering (despite money worries of her own), and Donald, an unconventional man living in seclusion in a nearby forest. The seemingly mismatched pair become closer than they initially anticipated and work to protect Donald’s living quarters from being repossessed as part of a court case when the land becomes valuable. Hampstead provides the briefest glimpse at interesting ideas and themes such as classism and identity, only to complete ignore them to follow the uninspired romance that barely develops over the 103 minute runtime.
Keaton and Gleeson do a relatively fine job considering the mundane script they are contending with. Their dialogue is fine, the characters are serviceable all things considered and they actually craft a believable chemistry and energy in a few scenes; but Robert Festinger’s script is plagued with a familiarity that renders the entire experience pointless. It has no excuse for being 103 minutes long and, with no offence to British daytime television intended, could easily be condensed down into a 30 minute television episode intended for British daytime programming. There’s nothing new in this script, and therefore the film, damning the entire piece for those who value the possibilities and creativity of cinema.
Another element reinforcing the notion that I’ve seen this exact film before (in countless other forms) is the British acting veterans who pad out the supporting cast. All significant figures in British productions – be they film, television, or theatre – the group (consisting of Lesley Manville, Jason Watkins, Simon Callow and Alistair Petrie, to name just a few) play characters we have seen before and very often ones they have already played, not at all helping the film to differentiate itself from the carbon copies before it. Many of the performances are overplayed and often a little cringeworthy, with the strongest turns coming from the film’s younger cast members – James Norton and Hugh Skinner.
Problems with creativity
Joel Hopkins‘ direction lacks a sophistication that could have pushed Hampstead in a sturdier direction. While the naturally pretty setting operates as some nice window dressing, little else exists here of any substance, making it as forgettable visually as it is narratively. It is directed in a completely mediocre, scarcely passable manner that once again suggests that the film (and wider genre) has a glaring issue with creativity. The blame for that cannot land solely at Hopkins‘ door – after all, maybe familiarity and straightforwardness is precisely what the target audience want – but those looking for something more will certainly be disappointed with what amounts to directing on the plainest, simplest level.
Mature audiences are a plentiful bunch, particularly during matinee showings, and the silver pound is one of the most disposable incomes in Britain today. You can certainly understand cinema tapping into the market: it is growing at a pretty rapid pace, to the point where most of these releases are seeing a more saturated release than you would dream (it had more showings in its second week than The Mummy did at the same point in its theatrical run at my local cinema). Numerous times I have seen the exact same group of pensioners eagerly awaiting the lights to dim and the film to entertain them. I actually feel sorry for them that they are being fed the same film over and over and over again. At least with blockbusters, there is enough variety and choice to pick what interests you.
Hampstead plays by every single rule in the well-worn, rigid, and uninspired book. Everything happens here that you already suspect is going to happen; the element of surprise is non-existent, the template is unyielding and the results are inevitable, boring, and lacklustre.
They often say that mediocre films are the most difficult type to discuss; they inspire little in the way of strong feelings, so trying to deliver a review that is both honest and insightful is a challenge – a film that you feel you have seen (and reviewed) before is even more difficult. What new can be said about it? Until films like Hampstead start putting the effort in, I won’t either.
So I finish this review with synonyms of ‘uninspired’, all words you can relate to this slapdash middle-class drama: unimaginative, uninventive, pedestrian, mundane, unoriginal, prosaic, commonplace, ordinary, routine, second-rate, undistinguished, unexceptional, indifferent. Hampstead is just plain lazy.
Am I too harsh? Do I have any right to dismiss a genre that is in no way intended for me?
Hampstead is out now in UK cinemas. You can see other releases dates here.