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First look: How does new ‘Hampstead’ movie match up to the real story of Harry The Hermit?

Our film critic Dan Carrier gets a sneak preview of new Diane Keaton romcom

01 June, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

WAS “Harry The Hermit”, the man who lived in the gardens of Athlone House and won squatter’s rights after camping out for 30 years, really a modern day Henry David Thoreau? Did he gaze out lovingly upon the green pastures of Hampstead Heath and, like Thoreau, the Victorian back-to-nature writer of Walden Pond, sit quietly, contented with his lot?

During conversations with the real Harry Hallowes, who died last year, you got the feeling this was not quite the case. Intelligent, tough and private, he did not romanticise his lifestyle but instead was fairly cantankerous with those who would suggest he was some kind of sainted monk who had discovered the meaning of life while tucked away in the bushes.

When he heard director Joel Hopkins and writer Robert Festinger were planning a movie inspired by his story, he wasn’t having anything to do with it. In fact, you might suspect he would have guffawed dismissively at the end result, which reaches cinemas in a fortnight’s time. Such facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

A scene from Hampstead

And the makers of Hampstead, starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson, are quick to state that Harry was just the starting point for a film about a man who lives in the gardens of an old hospital, is threatened with eviction by property developers, and finds help – and love – in the form of lost Hampstead widow Emily. So if you are after the real story of Harry, told many times on these pages, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, Hampstead is a straightforward rom-com, a Brit flick that seeks to sell NW3 to a US audience.

It has a lazy story arc but it does attempt to make some gentle social comment. Its Hampstead is no longer the preserve of a left-leaning, artistic intelligentsia, but home to the mega-rich whose values are not worth celebrating. Emily’s gossipy neighbours are portrayed as a bunch of lunching ladies who get riled about “conservation” issues while their husbands work in venture capital to create yet more unaffordable housing. They moan about parking while their kids are sent in 4×4 cars to a private school. They complain about mobile phone masts, but are furious when they can’t get a signal on Hampstead Lane.

Harry Hallowes

You’ll have fun playing “spot the location”: there is something enchanting about an opening scene that shows kites on Parliament Hill, as Emily works in the Gayton Road Oxfam shop, while there is a romantic moment at Karl Marx’s grave. Such scenery is likely to prompt you to want to immediately leave the confines of a darkened auditorium, head for a walk over our common land and have a dip up the ponds.

Despite having very little resemblance to Harry, and I suspect he would have thought it a load of tosh, the ending credits roll with the legend: “Inspired by Henry ‘Harry’ Hallowes, who lived the way he wanted.”

And here lies the rub: the Heath is a poorer place since he went. He may not have been a Thoreau in real life, but our world needs more like him – more people who don’t feel the need to live by the rules of materialism. Anything that tries to celebrate this, even if riddled by contradictions, has something worthwhile at its heart.

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