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Last Chance Harvey

It would be interesting to know how writer-director Joel Hopkins got to make Last Chance Harvey, not to mention making it with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Not to mention making a film that might seem to be extremely thin. By the cold light of day, there's not much to it. When Last Chance Harvey isn't uneventful, it's implausible.

But of course we don't watch movies by the cold light of day, and if it hadn't been for a snarky review in the Times I might have had no idea how slight the story of Last Chance Harvey really is. Unwarned, I should have been swallowed alive by the romance that the two principals bring to life simply by being utterly present before the camera. It's as though the actors were showing sides of themselves that we didn't know about, but as people, not as actors. They're both much too iconic for us to forget for a moment that they're theatre people, and yet they seem not to be acting. The characters of Kate Walker and Harvey Shine melt into them, not vice versa. This could be hugely off-putting, I suppose, but it is not. In the manner of the great stars of the studio days, Ms Thompson and Mr Hoffman melt further, into Everyman and Everywoman. This is how you mortals are, they tell us, with the immense authority of their dedication and skill. And we see at once that they are right.

That's why it doesn't really matter what happens or doesn't happen in Last Chance Harvey. As long as one thing is made dramatically clear, there is no need for a story at all. That one thing is simple: Kate and Harvey have lost interest in their lives. Responsibility is all that's getting them through the day; or perhaps it's the satisfaction of being responsible. Harvey doesn't like his job, writing commercial jingles, because the "business" has changed: it's all done with computers now. Kate doesn't like being a singleton. But both are too worn out to make any changes. It's more desperation than anything else that prods Harvey to strike up a conversation with a decidedly unreceptive Kate at a Heathrow bar, and it's desperation that allows Kate to thaw in Harvey's relentless attention. The principal implausibility is that two people are brought together at the moment when each is primed to burst into quiet flame. This is not the sort of implausibility that bothers viewers who have already been spellbound by stars.

Strange to say, Last Chance Harvey is not the first movie to bring these stellar talents together. They may not have been on the same set at any one time, but they were both in the Will Ferrell comedy, Stranger Than Fiction. Their characters were oddly paired, with Mr Hoffman playing the good witch and Ms Thompson the bad (at least from the hero's point of view). And they were clearly acting acting circles around everyone else in the cast. Who could have foreseen what would happen when "the rest of the cast" was pushed into the background, and they were together for more than half of the movie? Who could tell what they would be like when, instead of acting out bits of themselves, they swelled their complete selves to godly dimensions?

(I'd have to see the movie a second time to be sure, but you could "see" Last Chance Harvey as a film made by two actors who haven't liked their own recent work, but couldn't think what to do next.)

The only fault that I find in this film is Mr Hopkins's reliance upon the Thames and its embankments. It's a perverse complaint, because nothing could be more plausible than two strangers choosing the wide walks along a river for the purposes of getting-to-know-you. But I began to feel that the location must have been inexpensive for shooting film. Because the movie is so simply about two exhausted middle-aged people, the simplicity of the settings is soon exhausted as well.

Among the actors in the film who have the grace to act, so that Mr Hoffman and Ms Thompson can do their star turns, Kathy Baker, Bronagh Gallagher and Liane Balaban must be singled out for first-rate support. They all play very distinctive women who quietly but clearly tell us a lot about Kate and Harvey. Mr Hopkins may be forgiven for creating a sidelight for Eileen Atkins. If her needy mother act tells us more about what Kate is going through than about who Kate is, it also suggests where Kate is headed if a miracle like Harvey doesn't happen. Shrewd examination will probably reveal that Ms Atkins also knows how to soften us up.

It will be very interesting to see what younger people make of Last Chance Harvey as they, in turn, get older. (January 2009)

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