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All He Sees Are Her Sympathetic Eyes

MOVIE REVIEW
Last Chance Harvey (2008)

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Overture Films

The critical response to “Last Chance Harvey” seems to have focused primarily on the plot’s adherence to the meet-cute romantic comedy blueprint, a deceptively dismissive way of looking at the picture. To characterize the movie as just another product of the rom-com assembly line is to ignore the depth of feeling Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson bring to their performances. It is also to neglect the wisdom of writer-director Joel Hopkins’s screenplay, the eloquent portrait it develops of the pain of aging alone and the ways the filmmaker illustrates the profound comfort of finding someone when all hope for doing so seems lost.

Mr. Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a writer of commercial jingles stuck in a state of professional and personal stasis. He’s unappreciated at his job and emotionally detached from his daughter Susan (Liane Balaban), whose wedding brings him to London as the film begins. Soon after Susan – in an exchange filled with barely concealed disgust and sadness on both ends – tells him she wants her stepfather to give her away, Harvey decides he’s not needed and leaves the wedding for the airport. There, happenstance leads him to Kate Walker (Ms. Thompson), whose life is (as we have learned through cross-cutting) as lonely and unfulfilling as Harvey’s.

Set among the glittering, picturesque streets and squares of modern London, “Last Chance Harvey” simultaneously functions as a valentine to the city and an intensely personal character study. Mr. Hopkins consistently frames the characters in a fashion that places them at odds with their surroundings. We see Kate out at a bar, alone and cutoff from the conversation happening around her, and Harvey placed way down at the end of the table at a wedding dinner, far removed from Susan. The camera lingers on their faces during these moments, and the audience gleans a greater visceral understanding of the sadness of their seclusion.

Mr. Hoffman, an expert at using his body language to imbue mundane moments with significance, makes the most of the director’s generosity in a performance rife with masterful understatement. Harvey never really articulates what he’s thinking, but the pain of a wasted life can be read in his every gesture and facial expression. Ms. Thompson – as accomplished and undervalued an actress as any we have – brings Kate the hesitant, formal demeanor of a person resigned to a life of rejection. Observing the trajectory of the central relationship, particularly the ways they thaw each other out of their collective fog is an experience as uplifting and powerful as any to be had at the movies this year.

LAST CHANCE HARVEY

Opened on Dec. 25 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Joel Hopkins; director of photography, John de Borman; edited by Robin Sales; production designer, Jon Henson; produced by Tim Perell and Nicola Usborne; released by Overture Films. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Dustin Hoffman (Harvey Shine), Emma Thompson (Kate), Eileen Atkins (Maggie), Liane Balaban (Susan), James Brolin (Brian) and Kathy Baker (Jean).

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