Hampstead (12A)

two stars

Dir: Joel Hopkins

With: Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson, Lesley Manville

Runtime: 103 minutes

TELEVISION has made a pretty penny from programmes in which experts tell you how to improve the value of your house. You know the sort of thing. Paint the front door, mow the grass, tidy teenagers away in cupboards when buyers come to call. The movies do it differently. As any gazillionaire homeowner in Notting Hill can testify, there is nowt that gets the noughts stacking up like having a Hollywood star pretend they live in the area.

Such is the case with Joel Hopkins’ romantic comedy, a film that presents the north London suburb of the title as a heaven on Earth of fabulous homes, darling little lanes, chi-chi shops, and Diane Keaton as a widowed charity shop worker. The only way it could be more calculated to appeal to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel demographic is if every ticket came with a free coffee at Waitrose. To some that will sound like an invitation to to stroll this way for 103 minutes of gentle entertainment. To others it will be a dirty great “stay away” sign. Sort yourselves out accordingly.

Keaton plays Emily Walters, the American abroad. Emily lives in a huge house divided into handsome flats. Alas she is in a mess financially, what with her late husband having frittered away their money, so she is not to be seen in the same harsh light as the other homeowners who cannot wait to see the woods opposite sold off to a property developer. Emily, as shown from her charity shop work, has a social conscience. When she finds out that a homeless man named Donald (played by Brendan Gleeson) has built himself a shack in the woods, she is determined to fight moves to evict him.

Hampstead is based on the real story of Harry ¬Hallowes. Going by photographs published in the newspapers, Hallowes bore about as much resemblance to Brendan Gleeson as I do. Ditto the shack, which in the hands of set designers ends up looking like something David Cameron might pay good money to park in his garden. Any reality that intrudes into Hampstead does so with a mouse-like step, as when we hear about the housing crisis via a radio playing in the background: it is there, but it is easily tuned out.

Onwards we go, with the film throwing no end of questions into the air. How did Donald come to be homeless? Where will the growing friendship between the two lead? And who the heck, as Emily does, would pay a hundred quid plus for a woollen beret she sees in one of the dinky boutiques that line her route to work?

It is not the first time Keaton has looked good in a kooky hat. Indeed, Hampstead functions at times as a sort of greatest hits reel for the star of Annie Hall. Oh look, here’s Diane freaking out over a wriggling fish on a hook the way she once did over a lobster; there’s Diane being delightfully ditzy (too many films to mention); and hey, she’s doing it all in good ole London town, just like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill!

Fair play to Keaton and Gleeson. If ever two actors could take the epic tweeness of Hampstead and turn it into something halfway palatable, it is this pair. The screenplay, written by Robert Festinger, Oscar-nominated for 2001’s In the Bedroom, gives them each a decent, chewy speech, and towards the end the wit becomes more barbed and the interplay between Emily and Donald more believable. Meanwhile, a fine British cast, led by Lesley Manville as the wife of the property developer, and the moreish Jason Watkins (Line of Duty, WIA) as the accountant who has designs on Emily, lend what support they can.

But Hopkins, director of Last Chance Harvey (with Dustin Hoffman playing another American in a chocolate box London) is not prepared to stray too far from the path he has set, with the result that we end up in a wholly predictable, perfectly pleasant, crashingly bland place. That’s Hampstead, the kind of film to knit cashmere sweaters by, or even berets.

The Book of Henry (12A)

Two stars

Dir: Colin Trevorrow

With: Naomi Watts, Lee Pace

Runtime: 105 minutes

FROM the writer-director of the hit family film Jurassic World, this drama looked like another winner from Colin Trevorrow. Starring Naomi Watts as the devoted single mother of two adorable children, one of them hugely gifted and possessing a delicious line in sarky wit that he practises on mum’s pal Sheila (Sarah Silverman), what could possibly stand in the way of this being a hit?

Therein lies a tale. Since the second rule of film reviewing is to avoid spoilers (the first being to steer clear of Danny Dyer films), I will not go into the ins and outs of the wildly improbable story. Enough to say that like the cinema adaptation of The Lovely Bones, along the way The Book of Henry takes a distressing turn from which it would be impossible for any film to recover.

It starts promisingly, with Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) being a good, kind, kid to everyone he meets. Like a modern day Holden Caulfield, Henry sees a world that is messed up and cruel in places, and wants to put everything right. Had Trevorrow carried on in this vein things might have turned out differently, but there is no accounting for some decisions.

Certainly, his film is handsomely shot and boasts a back to form performance from Watts, who needed a hit after the equally disastrous Diana. By the end, he even manages to get the movie back on some semblance of track. But good luck getting there. Too much Mr Trevorrow, too much.