I haven’t seen most of the non-Hindi film releases of the past few months, and haven’t been too clued in about them either, so I had only vaguely heard of the Dustin Hoffman-Emma Thompson starrer Last Chance Harvey. But on the flight to Munich I sank happily into this low-key romantic film about two misfits – an elderly American jingle writer named Harvey and a middle-aged British spinster named Kate – whose paths cross. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a movie that’s driven mainly by characters and conversation, and this one was mostly a delight.
Its success owes almost entirely to Joel Hopkins’ sensitive screenplay and what the two leads do with it. Emma Thompson was one of my favourite actors back in the days when she was working prolifically in films (the Carrington/Remains of the Day/Dead Again/Much Ado about Nothing phase) and watching her endearing, self-conscious klutziness was like catching up with an old friend. But I was especially impressed by Hoffman, an actor whom I had slotted in the De Niro/Nicholson category of onetime greats who have become victims of their own stature so that it’s impossible now to watch them in a film without thinking primarily of the actor rather than the character. Working with naturalistic dialogue and a strong script that allows him to play a (relatively) normal guy, Hoffman is excellent as Harvey, whose growing despondency in the film’s first half hour is very believably done.
In London for the wedding of his daughter (who is closer now to her step-father than to him), Harvey checks in at the hotel he is supposed to go to, expecting the entire wedding party to be guests there, but then finds that everyone else is staying at a house rented by his ex-wife. At a pre-wedding dinner he is clearly out of his depth in the presence of sharply dressed youngsters who engage in social conversation and business talk; his daughter and son-in-law, though affectionate in a superficial sort of way, don’t make an extra effort to make him feel like part of the family. In these scenes, the writing and Hoffman’s performance creates a powerful dual effect: on the one hand we cringe for Harvey (anyone who's ever known social awkwardness will sympathise with him in these early scenes), but on the other hand it’s possible to see why this man estranges people and makes them uncomfortable, and to realise that he was probably a less-than-ideal husband and father. This brings a certain urgency to his relationship with Kate, whom he meets at an airport bar where he’s brooding about his misfortunes. (The “last chance” of the title refers to an assignment that might salvage Harvey’s teetering career, but his meeting with Kate gives the words a second meaning.)
I thought the film’s first half was outstanding, the second half slightly less so as it started reflexively drawing on the clichés of romantic films: a missed rendezvous (a la Love Affair and An Affair to Remember), second thoughts, a reconciliation. There was also a subplot about Kate’s paranoid mother and her next-door neighbour that was superfluous at best. But these things didn’t much matter given the Hoffman-Thompson chemistry. It’s wonderful to see two performers of this caliber in such good form, and playing off each other so well, especially given that one of them is in his seventies and the other doesn’t do much movie work these days.
(Also watched on the flight: The Reader, which I had heard mixed things about but which I liked a great deal. Maybe planes are the new multiplexes.)