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In the last decade Nicholas Sparks has established himself as today’s undisputed king of schmaltz. Safe Haven is the eighth Sparks’ romance to be adapted for the big screen, and it is not one of the best.
Sparks has a bit of a formula – girl meets guy, girl and guy fall in love, girl and guy get caught in the rain together, and then something dramatic threatens to keep them apart. In this case that girl is Katie and that guy is Alex, a single father who runs the general store in a small fishing village that she happens to come through. The thing threatening to derail them is Katie’s secret: she is on the run, wanted for murder and being pursued by a particularly obsessive Boston detective. The thriller element is something different from the usual formula, but isn’t particularly strong, and feels like a concession to all of the boyfriends who will be made to sit through the film by their better halves. The film plods along pleasantly enough before “surprising” you with two plot twists, one which you see coming a mile away, and the other which will surely be one of the most ridiculous and unnecessary twists you will ever come across.
Safe Haven is directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström. Hallström has made some fine films in his career – My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat to name but a few – which makes you wonder what on Earth attracted him to Safe Haven. Does he owe someone money? Does he just like spending a couple of months in a lovely location doing not overly strenuous work? More unfathomable is that it is actually his second Sparks adaptation, after 2010’s Dear John. Could he be a fan?
Katie is played by Julianne Hough, a dancer best known for her work in Footloose and Rock of Ages. Those films took advantage of her song and dance background. Safe Haven does not. She is one of a number of weak links in the film, with her inability to convince you of the burden that is supposedly weighing on her yet she seems so easily to forget, contributing to the ineffectiveness of the whole film. Cobie Smulders from How I Met Your Mother is on a hiding to nothing with her character, the mysterious Jo, but I don’t want to say too much in case I spoil the big twist. The only cast member who can really hold his head up is Josh Duhamel, who tries his heart out as single dad Alex in the face of substandard material, managing to be the only character who you can almost bring yourself to believe could be a real person.
But the lack of interest in the characters is not such an issue given that, as is often the case in Sparks adaptations, the real star of the film is the idyllic location. In this case it is the picturesque fishing town of Southport, North Carolina. Just lovely.
Schmaltzy romances don’t have to be bad, but this one is.
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