by Richard Seff
Seff Goes to the Movies
I’ve always loved the movies, but this column is supposed to stick to the buzz about theatre. Today I’m going to ask your indulgence because I was lucky enough to be invited to a premiere screening of Last Chance Harvey, and as that rarely happens to me, and it was a night to remember, I’m going to impose on you to let me share it with you.
A movie premiere is different, even in New York. We don’t have the palm trees and the concrete footprints in which to stick our eager feet, but we do get a red carpet and a bevy of photographers to lend a festive air. I was invited by a lady I’ve known since she was sixteen, through the good offices of her dad, director Eric Thompson, with whom I was working at the time. I’m talking of Emma Thompson, a remarkable Oscar winning actress and human being, whose talents as the former seem to know no bounds, and whose qualities as the latter make her very special indeed. She is the co-star of this movie, sharing top billing with the equally Oscared Dustin Hoffman. They’ve acted together before, once, in the ensemble cast of Stranger Than Fiction in 2006, but in that film they shared the screen with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Will Ferrell, Queen Latifah, Kristin Chenowith and many other bright lights. This time out, they head a cast of excellent supporting players, but they are the center, the spine of the story, and one or the other is always onscreen, leading us through the maze of their complicated back stories, keeping us always interested, engaged, and ultimately moved to tears.
For here we have “Harvey Shine” and “Kate Walker,” two very decent people, who find themselves in early middle age, in the sad setting of nowhere. Harvey has failed in marriage, and is about to fly from New York, where he’s employed as a jingle writer, to London for the wedding of his only daughter, whom he failed as a father, but whom he dearly loves. Kate has an unfulfilling job as a pollster for an airline in Britain. In her personal life she is stuck as caretaker to an overly protective mother (played with great humor and pathos by Eileen Atkins.). There is no real joy in any of their lives. By sheer happenstance, and not in the way of some films where the principal characters “meet cute”, they do meet. It may be cute, but to me it was totally organic, perhaps because these two actors make everything immediately real. Their first meeting does not suggest they have much of a future together, for its timing is unfortunate. But even in a city the size of London, it’s always possible that they might meet again, and of course they do. We join them on their journey in this lovely, luminous romantic comedy by the gifted director Joel Hopkins, who is new to me, and I do believe was new to his stars, but it’s fortuitous indeed that they all agreed to work together. For what’s come out is the most mature and endearing love story since David Lean’s production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter in 1945! I know that’s saying a lot, and Last Chance Harvey might well be lumped together with other more recent romantic films (When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle among many others come to mind), but there is a difference here that puts it in a more refined category. And the difference is the artistry and chemistry of Thompson and Hoffman.
These two show you what great screen acting is all about. Just watch him crumble in pain when his daughter tells him she’s going to ask her step father to give her away at her wedding. Watch Thompson as she goes through the agony of withdrawal on a blind date when her date thoughtlessly allows friends of his to join them in a bar, watch Hoffman as he begins to notice feelings of which he didn’t know he was still capable, watch her as she wordlessly lets us know she’s surprisingly intoxicated by this funny man who is nothing she’d have thought she wanted. Even to us they would at first seem a most unlikely couple. First of all, she’s half a head taller than he. Then of course, she’s British and he’s a prime example of American husband gone wrong. They live on two different continents. She’s well read, a nurturer; he’s read nothing and though he’d like to be a nurturer, he’s never learned how to be. But he suspects there is something in this woman that can touch something deep within him, and he’s sensitive enough to intuit her loneliness, picking up on the tiniest hints she throws now and then. Importantly, he finds he has the courage to break through her defenses and make further contact possible. . Later in the film, when he’s established something of a relationship with her, he manages to bungle it, which is his way. But this film continues to surprise us, and ultimately these two, older and wiser, decide to open a door with no idea whether they will find a lady or a tiger on the other side of it. But open it they do, and we are left with the most satisfying ending imagineable. No promises are made, but hope is in the air, and these days, hope is in short supply, and very welcome.
The “buzz” part of the evening came later, when I joined Ms. Thompson and her actor/writer husband Greg Wise at the Hudson Hotel on New York’s West 58th Street. There I learned that Mr. and Mrs. Wise had collaborated on a screenplay dealing with John Ruskin and his wife Effie, who created a great scandal when she left him for John Everett Millais way back there in 19th century England. The film will be called Effie and Greg Wise will play John Ruskin. You’ll hear more of this, but kindly recall you first read of it here.
At the party my companion and I supped on assorted goodies while chatting it up or ogling the likes of Bebe Neuworth, Cindy Adams, Dustin Hoffman and family, Cheyenne Jackson and others of the New York gliteratti. All in all a memorable evening, and I suggest you take someone you love to see Last Chance Harvey and see if you don’t fall in love all over again. This movie is a keeper, and I really look forward to seeing it again.