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Last Chance Harvey

September 5, 2010

Last Chance Harvey (2009)
Director: Joel Hopkins
Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Liane Balaban

Synopsis: Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) heads to London for the wedding of his estranged daughter (Liane Balaban). There he begins an unlikely relationship with an English woman (Emma Thompson).

Review: A soft piano sonata plays out in darkness. An image slowly fades in revealing an ageing man, framed gracefully from afar, playing the tune in an empty music studio. So begins Last Chance Harvey, and this genteel opening nicely engenders a tone of autumnal poignancy that prevails through the film’s otherwise workmanlike narrative. Though the mechanics of that narrative have a degree of predictability with some formulaic plot devices, the piece’s charm and refreshing focus on the maturity of its central relationship is what ultimately shines (no pun intended) through.

Central to that dialectic of the warmth of the story overriding its prosaic construct, is the way writer-director Joel Hopkins favours a cross-cutting technique in the first half of the film to draw a parallel empathy for his two ‘star-crossed’ lovers. From a strictly dramatic perspective this is an obvious tactic, and Hopkins opts for identical situational moments (both characters in transit, both characters having miserable nights out) to emphasise their fated connection. Despite this demonstrative bent, the sheer relentlessness of Hopkins’ rhetoric becomes strangely effective, particularly in an intelligently-crafted sequence where the poignant use of music and tender framing from the camera, locates Hoffman and Thompson together in their mutual melancholy.

The odd cinematographic flourish aside, Hopkins’ trump card is his central ‘star’ duo of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Success in romantic comedies is invariably predicated on the degree to which that great cinematic intangible – screen chemistry – transmits, and in Last Chance Harvey the seemingly ‘odd’ coupling of Hoffman and Thompson works a treat. Starting the characters off as complete opposites in almost every respect (nationality, temperament, and physical appearance – Hopkins uses their height discrepancy for a number of sight gags) actually makes their coming-together somehow more interesting and sincere than the usual serenading of Hollywood über-specimens. For both actors in particular it must have been a welcome opportunity to break out of recent typecasting trends. Hoffman (an actor often caught demonstrating his characters’ neuroses), is pushed to give an untricksy, realistic portrayal of a recognisable working man, and Thompson breaks free from recent ripe-patrician roles in Nanny McPhee (2005), Brideshead Revisited (2008), and An Education (2009) to give a genuinely moving portrayal of a woman unwittingly slipping into a life of lonely spinsterhood. Standing as further evidence to the strength of the lead actors, is that despite the crudest of three-act structures (Hoffman missing his flight then having a near heart-attack are the two clear ‘plot reversals’) the central sentiment of the story is not compromised.

Even as a seemingly shameless advertisement for the tourist delights of London, Last Chance Harvey is slyly deceptive. Where recent features like Richard Curtis’ Love, Actually (2003) and Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005) never thematically justified the inclusion of their obvious London landmarks, Last Chance Harvey’s plentiful shots of Hoffman and Thompson walking and talking across the Hungerford Footbridge and along the South Bank are legitimate. While not exactly having the thrilling verité effect of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy sharing memories and conversation through Paris in Before Sunset (2004), it does gently suggest that Hoffman’s character has suddenly found the means to embrace the spontaneity of his new situation, freed from the expediency of having to rush back to his old job. It is in this respect, that Last Chance Harvey most recalls Hopkins’ only other directorial effort – Jump Tomorrow (2001) – which was also about a chance encounter reconfiguring a man’s dogmatic take on life. Both features, especially Last Chance Harvey, act as testament to the notion that it is often the mini-epiphanies of life that make for the most moving of cinematic fables. (December 2009)

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