SAFE HAVEN. Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, and Cobie Smulders. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. M (Mature themes, violence and sex scene). 116 min.
This is a romantic thriller released world-wide on St. Valentines Day, and is based on a popular American novel by the same name written by Nicholas Sparks in 2010.
It tells the story of Katie Feldman (Julianne Hough), a self-effacing, retiring young woman, who arrives one day by bus in Southport, a small coastal American town in North Carolina. People in the town wonder about her past, but she chooses to avoid any personal relationships that might pressure her to reveal the darkness from which she is running away. She quietly works anxiously in the local diner, and lives in a tumbling shack in the woods nearby.
Southport is a close community, but a friendly one. Members of the community reach out to Katie, and they don’t understand why she has joined them, nor do they know when she will leave them. Responding to their kindness, Katie gradually lets her reserve down, thinks she has found a “safe haven” at last, and is drawn into a romantic relationship with Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), who is a young widower with a family. She also makes friends with Jo (Cobie Smulders), her neighbour in the woods, who talks regularly to her. Reluctant at first, she forms a close attachment to both Alex and Jo.
Katie falls in love with Alex and becomes part of his family, who are still grieving about the loss of their mother, who died by cancer. Alex is forced to confront Katie’s past, and Katie finds she has to make a choice between staying safely as a person with an unknown past, and committing herself to a meaningful relationship to Alex and his children. She chooses the latter, but it comes at a cost. She is forced to reveal to Alex what causes her terror, which haunts her.
This is a film that packages together in a sugary way, the themes of love, death, and domestic abuse. Romance slowly develops between Alex and Katie, but there are good reasons why it grows slowly. Alex is hesitant about re-attachment because of his wife’s death, and he has an alienated son to deal with. He doesn’t understand why Katie’s attitude towards him is initially so distant, but he knows why Katie has decided to leave Southport, when he realises that she is married and her husband, Kevin (David Lyons), who has abused her, is on the hunt for her. Alex knows she is afraid, and as Kevin hones in, the film works to a dramatic climax when the prospect of death occurs yet again. Katie’s life is in danger, and Kevin is also a threat to Alex and his children.
This is standard Valentine’s fare, geared primarily for strong adolescent appeal. The thriller component is touched upon throughout, well before the climax. Katie’s alcoholic, detective husband is obsessed with trying to find her, and she is running away from a paranoiac, who wants to violently hunt her down. The direction of the film is steady, the acting is good, and the thriller components add solid tension to a romantic story. But the film is really a tragic-romantic tale told in superficial fashion about true love that finds its path against the odds to predictable happiness.
The ending to the movie is unexpectedly supernatural, which tends to rather spoil the reality that has gone before. But the film is enjoyable fare, if one can forgive it for its novel-inspired, mushy conclusion.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out 14 February, 2013.