Director: Lasse Hallström
Cast: Josh Duhamel, Julianne Hough, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons, Noah Lomax, Mimi Kirkland
Runtime: 1 hr 55 mins
Rating: PG13 (Scene of Intimacy)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Official Website: http://www.facebook.com/safehavenmovie
Opening Day: 21 February 2013
Synopsis: An affirming and suspenseful story about a young woman's struggle to love again, Safe Haven is based on the novel from Nicholas Sparks. When a mysterious young woman arrives in a small North Carolina town, her reluctance to join the tight knit community raises questions about her past. Slowly, she begins putting down roots, and gains the courage to start a relationship with Alex, a widowed store owner with two young children. But dark secrets intrude on her new life with such terror that she is forced to rediscover the meaning of sacrifice and rely on the power of love in this deeply moving romantic thriller.
You’re already a fan of Nicholas Sparks or you’re not, and if you belong to the latter, then there is frankly little we can say that will change your mind, or for that matter convince you to watch ‘Safe Haven’. But if you are a sucker for Nicholas Sparks’ romances, then you’ll love this gentle, heartwarming and surprisingly suspenseful adaptation of the prolific author’s sixteenth novel, which feels similar yet different from his previous works but is at the end of the day all the better for it.
Indeed, the opening seems right smack out of a domestic thriller, where we see a woman fleeing from a house where something violent has happened - only to be pursued by a dogged cop to a bus terminus, before narrowly eluding him by sneaking on board a long-haul bus bound for Atlanta. When the bus stops for a bathroom break in a small town on the North Carolina coast called Southport, said woman finds the quiet picturesque community a good place as any to rebuild her life, so she rents a secluded house and takes up a nondescript job as a waitress at the local diner.
Under the pseudonym of Katie Feldman (Julianne Hough), she strikes up a friendship with Alex (Josh Duhamel), the owner of a local convenience store who is smitten at first sight by her. But just as Katie has her baggage, so does Alex – he’s widowed after his wife died of cancer, and now has to look after two children, a sensitive older son (Noah Lumax) and a cheerful younger daughter (Mimi Kirkland), while dealing with his own grief. The protagonists in Sparks’ tales of love have always been broken individuals who find healing and solace in each other’s presence, and ‘Safe Haven’ is no different in that regard.
Two things however set this story apart from the rest. First, more than in any other, there is a strong thriller element, as director Lasse Hallstrom endeavours to keep his audience on edge guessing just when Katie’s pursuer will track her down and also just what dark secret she has chosen to keep hidden in the recesses of her previous life. Of course this is still through and through a romance, so don’t go expecting some Agatha Christie potboiler, but the mystery does help make the movie pacier than other Sparks’ adaptations.
Besides a more dramatic buildup and climax, there is also a supernatural twist thrown in for good measure. That in itself is a first for the author, and could easily have turned into farce without the right finesse. Fortunately, the unlikely twist survives the journey from print to screen thanks to some assured direction from Hallstrom, who avoids turning every tragic detail of the story into heavy-handed melodrama. Instead, that last-minute reveal adds poignancy to a surprisingly down-to-earth story of finding closure with the past and moving forward with hope.
That the central relationship between Alex and Kate never feels less than genuine is credit to Hallstrom as much as it is to the winning performances of Duhamel and Hough. Hallstrom doesn’t find the necessity to turn every lovey-dovey moment between the couple, whom he knows we know will end up with each other, into some sappy MTV moment; rather, he trusts in his two actors to win you over with their earnest portrayals of two people who find the courage to trust in each other and in that special bond of love that binds them together. There is an affable rapport between Duhamel and Hough right from the beginning, which develops into something more affecting and emotive as the movie progresses, guided along by Hallstrom’s sensitive and tasteful handling of the material.
It’s almost too easy to pan anything associated with Nicholas Sparks, but there is a reason why almost all, if not all, of the author’s books have ended up atop the New York Times bestseller list. Even though his stories of love are pure escapism, he has managed to make every one of them relatable by tapping into the universal need for reconciliation and companionship. And ‘Safe Haven’ is a story crafted in that same mould, but with a good dose of thriller and a supernatural twist thrown in, that stands among one of Sparks’ best. Sure, Hallstrom has definitely done more classy films (think ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ and ‘The Cider House Rules’), but within the confines and the context of a Sparks novel, he has made an excellent adaptation that enhances the inherent appeal of the book.
Like we said in the beginning, there is probably nothing we can say that will change your mind about the book or the film if you’re already prejudiced against Nicholas Sparks or his works. Everyone else looking for an affirming story about the ability of love to overcome tragedy and inspire new beginnings will find this feel-good tale a beguiling and ultimately uplifting experience perfect for Valentine’s Day and any occasion in between to rekindle your faith in the power of love.
(As good a Nicholas Sparks adaptation as you will get, ‘Safe Haven’ boasts a surprisingly engaging narrative, down-to-earth performances from its leads, and sensitive yet elegant direction from Lasse Hallstrom)
Review by Gabriel Chong