Loosely based on real life events, the story of Hampstead fictionalises the late Harry Hallowes – also known as ‘Harry the Hermit’ – a squatter on Hampstead Heath who won a legal battle in 2007 which rewarded him with rights to the land he had lived on, in a tiny shack, since 1986. The land he fought for ended up being worth £2m: he never sold it, his aim was just to have the right to inhabit it.
In Hampstead (screenplay by Robert Festinger), Harry becomes Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson) who connects with quirky American widow Emily Walters (Diane Keaton). The story focusses on their random meeting, his legal battle with developers, and their subsequent romance which blossoms slowly like the wildflowers which cover the Heath. The slow build up of their unlikely relationship - she is a Hampstead-ite, living in one of the richest districts in Britain, he is a squatter who lives off the land - happens against a backdrop of the planning of a new luxury housing development (supported by locals, including Emily’s friend and neighbour Fiona (Lesley Manville), and which threatens the existence of Donald’s shed-like home.
Whilst the pairing of Donald and Emily seems odd, it works in an endearing way; there is a bouncy energy to the on-screen chemistry between Gleeson and Keaton and the actors’ strong performances balance each other well. It’s also lovely to see portrayals of older people’s narratives, particularly ones which explore friendship (the scenes between Keaton and Manville are wonderful), romance, and sex. Hampstead has an older female character expressing sexual desire – and her pursuing it - and this is rare indeed. It was very refreshing to witness older people enjoying intimate and affectionate pleasure, and the post-coital breakfast scene into which Emily’s son Philip (James Norton) stumbles, is both sweet and funny, and a nice inversion of the usual ‘teenager caught out having sex, by parents’ trope.
Given the older leads, and the David vs Goliath, squatter vs property developers storyline, this film offers a sentimentality that may appeal to a particularly liberal older audience – but as a whole, it’s a bit lacking. The story just doesn’t stand up, and the fantasy of what London could be like if everyone was rich, white and upper class, is somewhat jarring. Of course, aspects of the real-life Hampstead are just as exclusive, but this story chose to ignore the local authority social housing to the east and south of the area, and the only two people of colour in the entire film are characters onscreen only briefly to perform a comedic function (Peter Singh as a doorman, and the woefully under-used Bafta award winning Adeel Akhtar as Donald’s solicitor). Director Joel Hopkins says that he sees Hampstead the area as another character in the film and that “it’s always been a unique neighbourhood within London and...a sort of village feel within the big city.” Making this film become the whitest village in London undermines how multicultural it is, and what mixed backgrounds people are from, in reality; it’s fair to say that social realism this film is not.
If the aim of Hampstead is to offer a tourist delight of ye olde England, full of happy smiles, improbable romance, and everyone living happily ever after, then I suppose you could say it’s successful at that; it’s possibly even a Notting Hill for north London, such is its whiteness. It’s definitely not a Mike Leigh drama, looking at social inequality and how real estate developers can destroy a neighbourhood, but if you like feel-good fantasy, and enjoy property-porn rom-coms, then this film is for you.