Recently I watched a film that opened on Christmas Day. Not this past Christmas of less than a month ago. No, this was from Christmas Day 2008. The film was a love story and starred Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. The movie had two taglines.
The first was: It’s about first loves, last chances and everything in between.
And the second was: When it comes to love, is it ever too late to take a chance?
So you should not be surprised that the title was: Last Chance Harvey.
My brother seemed to prefer labeling this film a rom-com, while I thought it was more aptly labeled a romance with dramatic elements. But this is not a matter of right or wrong as certainly there was humor in the bantering between Thompson’s Kate Walker and Hoffman’s Harvey Shine.
Early on, Director Joel Hopkins cross-cuts between Harvey, a writer of music jingles for TV commercials, and Kate, employed as a section chief by an airline’s customer service department that solicits opinions of the airline’s services from arriving passengers.
At first I thought that this was not a bad idea but that the scenes were going back and forth too quickly. But I soon dispensed with that theory because the scenes were so well written that a great deal of information was presented in brief segments so succinctly that we were brought up to speed in no time at all.
We learn that Harvey is a New York musician who wanted to reach the heights as a jazz pianist but that he didn’t have enough talent (his words not mine). He’s a middle-aged long divorced man. His job is in jeopardy, and he is all set to fly to London, in the UK, for his grown daughter’s wedding.
Kate is a 40 something single woman, who commutes to Heathrow Airport each day by train for her job. She lives alone, and has a widowed Mother who dotes on her daughter to the extent of multiple phone calls on almost a semi-hourly basis. Kate is attractive but unattached and is about to have a blind date.
Within 20 minutes, Harvey has arrived at Heathrow, blown off Kate’s attempt to get her questionnaire completed, checked into his hotel only to find that everyone else of the family and friends from the states is staying at a rented house. He is the only one at the hotel. At the rehearsal dinner, he realizes that his ex-wife’s new husband Brian (played by James Brolin) has replaced him as “Dad” and he, not Harvey, will be in fact giving away the bride at the wedding.
Meanwhile, Kate’s blind-date begins well enough, but the other couple who engineered the date, leave earlier than expected, so Kate and the date are left to their own devices. Shortly after that, three friends of this guy meet him at the bar, they all join Kate at the table. And in moments, Kate is made to feel like the fifth wheel. Soon she departs dejected.
Harvey, planned to attend the wedding ceremony but not the reception, as he must fly back to NY to meet a client on Monday. So he departs after the ceremony but due to the traffic, he misses his plane. While waiting to be confirmed for the next flight, he calls his office only to find that he has been fired.
So the stage is set – Harvey is in a shambles – He’s missed his flight, his daughter was given away at the wedding by her stepfather, and he’s just lost his job.
You won’t be surprised when Harvey meets Kate at a bar in the airport. He needs a drink (Johnny Walker Black Label) to settle down. She’s there for lunch reading a novel, and quietly sipping a chardonnay – alone, of course.
And at this point I’ll dispense with any further plot-lines. The romance, which was how the film was marketed now begins. There’s ups and downs, highs, and lows, some laughs and some tears – just what you’d expect in a film of this genre. But what makes this film enjoyable is the fact that the Hopkins script has us rooting for them. We don’t know for sure if this is their last chance at the gold ring of happiness – but we care ardently.
Hoffman is excellent as Harvey Shine, the titular Last Chance Harvey. He trots out his usual edgy assortment of facial tics, twists, turns and a vast array of grins, only not so often that it becomes dominant. But it is as if you can’t take your eyes off him for fear of missing something. He alternates between being a bundle of nerves (family and job) and somewhat assured while dealing with Kate Walker. This confidence masks the uncertainty and desperation that you know is always present despite being just below the surface.
Thompson as Kate seems so natural. We don’t feel that this is an actress doing a role. Her Kate Walker has long ago abandoned the imagined stereotypical Brit style that we Yanks grew up with in the movies – you know the type – reserved, holding everything back, and internalizing her emotions so they don’t show on the surface. But this is the new British persona so there’s no stiff upper lip for her.
You might think that Director/Screenwriter Hopkins decided to pair up Thompson and Hoffman for a project and having done that, he set down to build a script around them. Instead we find out in the Making Of Featurette, that the script came before the casting. Hopkins showed it to Thompson and she suggested Hoffman. In any event, the pairing provided remarkable chemistry between them for we viewers to marvel at and enjoy.
But there is another star in this film that must be mentioned. And that would be London itself. Never before have I seen such a bright and beautiful London. The settings, in Paddington, in Heathrow, in various London Parks, and especially along the South Bank esplanade on the Thames River, all seemed to be filmed in the wondrous light of mid-late afternoons in October. This London was simply glorious, and kudos and props must go to Hopkins and his cinematographer John de Borman for waiting for just the perfect time of day.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I not only found it touching and moving, but I also found it very entertaining. The ‘Love’ that we find or hope to find in our own lives seemingly comes when you least expect it. A chance meet at the supermarket or the library, or even in the lobby of the cineplex. Surely Kate and Harvey’s meeting was ‘engineered’ for a our viewing pleasure. Just as their meeting was a pleasure for them, it is indeed a pleasure for us to watch this fine film.