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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Hampstead

Hampstead movie review
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It is always a delight to see Diane Keaton in a movie. But I’ll be frank, and perhaps reveal what some might take as a male, or male film critic, bias and admit I have not been crazy about the premises of her most recent films. I’d keep a wide distance between myself and any “Book Club” whose main project is “50 Shades of Gray,” and the let’s-give-cheerleading-a-shot-before-hitting-the-boneyard high concept of “Poms” struck me as ghastly.

“Hampstead,” a romantic drama with comedic touches, actually predates both those movies and has enjoyed a small success in Britain, from whence it comes to these shores. Apparently based on the true story of one squatter’s quest to be granted permanent residence on land that the Big Bad Real Estate Developer had sought to build upon, it costars a bearded Brendan Gleeson as That Man.

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Keaton plays Emily, a widower of American extraction who runs, with little success a vintage clothing shop for charity. She has a bunch of snooty semi-civic-minded friends headed up by Lesley Manville. And she has dwindling resources. “I have nothing of value to offer anyone,” she says to her adult son, who’s been planning a move. She doesn’t make that pronouncement in order to tie the apron strings tighter; it’s a frank self-assessment.

She meets Gleeson’s Donald after saving his life. Having observed him, through binoculars, from her back window, bathing in the nearby river, she then sees him being assaulted outside of his makeshift (but, we learn, cozy and utilitarian) shack. They converse in the local graveyard. He’s gruff but of compos mentis. An unlikely romance may be brewing.

And so it does, and it blooms in many cliched ways. Director Joel Hopkins may be carving a mini niche in the subgenre of Love At A Certain Age (see 2008’s “Last Chance Harvey,” with Dustin Hoffman; or, don’t), but he’s not bringing much distinction to it. Every now and then Keaton and Gleeson manage an exchange that amuses with “Annie Hall” redolent malaprop wit. “You think my mother birthed a complete half-wit?” Donald scoffs at Emily at one point. “Is there such a thing as a COMPLETE half-wit?” Emily ripostes, with delightful fake disingenuousness? More often, though, Hopkins and writer Robert Festinger pile up the commonplaces hoping they’ll result in actual characters. Particularly irritating is a scene in which Emily visits her husband’s grave and upbraids the dead man for his marital infidelity, asking “what could have been going on with you and that little whore?” I wonder why male writers are so eager to ascribe misogyny to the women they write, but it’s not that tough to figure out.

At any rate, Keaton and Gleeson are mostly a pleasure to watch as they enact the Inevitable Stations of the Romantic Dramedy, which include the mandatory misunderstanding that leads to breakup before inevitable reconciliation. Simon Callow is amusing in a late-breaking cameo as the judge who will decided the fate of Donald and his shack. 

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