Directed by: Lasse Hallström
Written by: Leslie Bohem & Dana Stevens, from the novel by Nicholas Sparks
Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons
Length: 115 min.
There is something to be said for blandly familiar entertainment.
There is almost nothing remotely new or controversial in Safe Haven, the eighth adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel to be brought to the screen. Sparks’ take on the romance genre is one which trades in comfortable, comforting clichés. There’s almost always death or abuse or disease or heartbreak, or some combination of terrible things happening to brunette men and blonde women (seriously, look at the stars of three of the four most recent adaptations) who then fall in love. It’s easy and familiar and soothing, like the cinematic equivalent of a foot-spa.
This particular pat-on-the-head of a film follows Katie (Julianne Hough), who we first see running around a lot, fleeing from a bloody scene in the home she shares with her abusive husband. We then meet Detective Tierney (David Lyons), who is pursuing Katie on the charge of murder. Katie escapes on a bus and winds up in South Port, where she meets single dad Alex (Josh Duhamel), who runs a store with his two kids. Alex’s wife died of cancer because of course she did, and his son is particularly attached to his mother’s memory.
Katie moves into a small cabin, freaks out a lot – thinking she’s being tracked down – and struggles to open up to people. She makes a friend in Jo (Cobie Smulders), her nearest neighbour, who slowly draws her out of her shell. She gets a job working in a local restaurant. Alex starts being nice to her. Meaningful looks gradually coalesce into strongly telegraphed romance. But things take a darker turn when Alex discovers Katie’s apparent past and real identity.
It is impossible to summarise the plot without falling into these kinds of banalities. Hough and Duhamel are fine, but each struggles to emote very much and they lack any real chemistry beyond their both being attractive. There’s never any reason for the two to fall for each other. Lyons comically over-acts what is largely a superfluous role until the second half of the film, where his character is changed by an obvious reveal.
Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens’ script is often laughable, with tortured dialogue and icky gender roles infecting what is otherwise a pleasant central romance. On a technical level, the film is something of a nightmare. The cinematography and lighting are often bad TV movie quality, and the editing in the first half jumps between locations seemingly every 20 seconds, almost destroying what little narrative flow is present. But it’s the final sequence that truly sinks the film, with a sudden, ludicrous and unintentionally funny twist off-setting any sincere attempts to take this story seriously.
There’s no doubt that the audience for Save Haven is built-in, and it’s certainly a pleasant cinematic experience to watch two relatively damaged people find solace in each other. Director Lasse Hallström – who deserves far better – is functional in bringing the story to screen, but never shows any kind of flair, and even falls into the trap of shooting fireworks out-of-focus. The film is sadly generic at best, risibly stupid at worst.