Thanks to his prolific prose output, and the swift screen adaptation of his texts, Nicholas Sparks’ films have almost become a genre of their own. The author’s famed dedication to releasing a new book each year has been mirrored in Hollywood’s insistence in crafting cinematic translations with the same frequency, each successive release aping the last in story, style and sentimental tone. Safe Haven is the latest to make the leap from his best-selling pages, helmed by seasoned Sparks director Lasse Hallström (Dear John). All the hallmarks remain in the middling romance, character archetypes included; however the film’s homogeneity is almost undone – and not for the better – as the narrative unfolds.
Fiercely independent Katie (Julianne Hough, Rock of Ages) and kindly Alex (Josh Duhamel, Movie 43) comprise the film’s central couple, each with a requisite backstory. On the run from a previous trauma, and pursued by Boston cop Tierney (David Lyons, Swerve), Katie moves to the small town of Southport, North Carolina to avoid her past; a local widower caring for young children Lexie (newcomer Mimi Kirkland) and Josh (The Walking Dead’s Noah Lomax), shopkeeper Alex dwells upon his troubled background every day. Their courtship is sudden and sensitive, but their future happiness is forever in the shadow of their former lives.
Writers Leslie Bohem (The Darkest Hour) and Dana Stevens (Life or Something Like It) are content to replicate the typical Sparks formula for the majority of the film, despite any appearances to the contrary. As expected, Katie and Alex attempt to overcome their issues in each other’s arms, and in a quaint, off-the-beaten-path setting, as token offsiders – his kids and her new neighbour Jo (Cobie Smulders, TV’s How I Met Your Mother) watch on. Hallström, too, plays it safe, soft and standard, yet the film’s predictable and pedestrian nature is inoffensive. For the romantically inclined, the feature is passable albeit not compelling – until the infuriating, unnecessary conclusion.
Since The Notebook, most movie versions of Sparks’ works have remained grating in their cliché, to the point of comedy. Safe Haven almost avoids the same fate thanks to the charisma of Hough and Duhamel; they might be playing stereotypes, but both appear committed to their characters, and convincing in their amorous entanglement. Alas, again it seems the novelist himself is the source of the feature’s undoing, not by the repetition that has become a customary part of his stories, or by his penchant for overtly trite dialogue, but in the resolution that provides the film’s fantastical last moment. Whilst developments are telegraphed well in advance, a late revelation proves too ridiculous to stomach even within the melodramatic confines, consigning otherwise average escapism to the realm of the bewildering and bland.
Safe Haven is released in Australia on February 14th.
Director: Lasse Hallström
Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders