Film reviews: The Book of Henry | Hampstead | Souvenir

The Book of Henry dubiously exploits tragedy for cheap emotional pay offs.
The Book of Henry dubiously exploits tragedy for cheap emotional pay offs.
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It is difficult to know where to start with The Book of Henry, a film so satisfied with its own toxic levels of quirkiness that all involved seem oblivious to how deranged it actually is. Revolving around a child genius who devises an elaborate plan to kill his next door neighbour, this description barely scratches the surface of a plot that includes child abuse, terminal illness, comedy alcoholism, a cutesy school talent show, improbably elaborate tree house construction and a single mother being trained in the art of assassination by her dead son. If this sounds in any way intriguing, then please pause for a second, re-read the previous sentence and imagine how one might go about weaving such tonally disparate story strands into a coherent movie. If you think you have an idea, then congratulations: you’re doing better than Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, who throws everything together into a sugary concoction that’s about as appetising as the peanut butter and breakfast cereal sandwiches Naomi Watts’ character makes for her kids.

The Book of Henry (12A) *

K�vin Aza� and Isabelle Huppert in the sweet French romance Souvenir

K�vin Aza� and Isabelle Huppert in the sweet French romance Souvenir

Hampstead (12A) *

Souvenir (12A) ***

It is difficult to know where to start with The Book of Henry, a film so satisfied with its own toxic levels of quirkiness that all involved seem oblivious to how deranged it actually is. Revolving around a child genius who devises an elaborate plan to kill his next door neighbour, this description barely scratches the surface of a plot that includes child abuse, terminal illness, comedy alcoholism, a cutesy school talent show, improbably elaborate tree house construction and a single mother being trained in the art of assassination by her dead son. If this sounds in any way intriguing, then please pause for a second, re-read the previous sentence and imagine how one might go about weaving such tonally disparate story strands into a coherent movie. If you think you have an idea, then congratulations: you’re doing better than Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, who throws everything together into a sugary concoction that’s about as appetising as the peanut butter and breakfast cereal sandwiches Naomi Watts’ character makes for her kids.

Watts is especially ill-served here. Her character, Susan, is a working class single mother who has deferred responsibility for the running of her family onto her academically gifted 11-year-old, the titular Henry (Jaeden Lieberher). Instead of exploring this in any meaningful way, though, the film falls back on blue-collar movie clichés by making Susan a tough-talking waitress, with a tough-talking friend (Sarah Silverman), a liberal attitude to drinking and swearing, a casual neglect of her youngest son (played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay), and a preference for playing violent video games over paying her bills. She never feels truthful, primarily because the film treats these traits as adorable idiosyncrasies and then tries to eliminate doubts about her parenting skills by making it clear early on that she also writes and illustrates children’s stories in her spare time and sings her kids to sleep with spontaneous ukulele performances.

As a character, Henry isn’t any more convincing. Perpetuating the Good Will Hunting myth that all kids with genius level IQs are experts in every field, he delivers lectures to his classmates on existentialism, dabbles in high finance, engineers fabulously intricate contraptions in his Mad Max-style tree house (which he couldn’t possibly have built) and has the wherewithal to understand that the girl next door, with whom he’s not-so-secretly in love, is being molested by her stepfather (Dean Norris). He’s also able to talk with his neurosurgeon (Lee Pace) using complex medical terminology when he’s diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.

The film severs what little grip on reality it has hitherto exhibited with these last two plot developments. Frustrated by the conspiracy of silence surrounding the molestation of the girl next door, Henry decides to piece together a fail-safe plan to execute her stepfather, who also happens to be the local police commissioner. As his dying wish, he tasks his poor mother with carrying out the plan, helping her along the way via a series of posthumous pep talks that he has somehow managed to sneak out of the hospital to record before dying. Yes, you read that correctly: Henry dies midway through the film, but the aforementioned plot contrivance means he gets to hang around like a creepy Obi Wan-Kenobi, guiding his mother from beyond the grave to commit murder for a good cause. It’ll probably come as no surprise that the film bottles out of doing anything truly dark here. Instead, it’s all vaguely reminiscent of the film versions of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, movies that dubiously exploit tragedy in wacky, precocious ways for cheap emotional pay offs and phony uplift. Don’t get suckered in.

Hampstead isn’t any better. A misjudged attempt to use the housing crisis in London as the backdrop for a gentle Notting Hill-style romance, this casts Diane Keaton as Emily, a recently widowed American struggling to hold on to her flat and friends now that her husband is dead and her debts are piling up. Though her hatefully prim and proper neighbours (led by Lesley Manville) keep trying to set her up with financially solvent suitors, she falls instead for Brendan Gleeson’s Donald, a wild Irishman living off the land in a shack in a secluded corner of Hampstead Heath. Keaton and Gleeson admittedly have a bit of spark between them and there are some interesting ideas about what it means to live an authentic life (Gleeson’s character is loosely based on Harry Hallows, a hermit who lived on the Heath for 25 years and managed to claim squatters’ rights when faced with eviction). But as Emily and Donald fight the property developer intent on forcing him off the land (he’s inevitably referred to as “Donald Tramp” at one point), anything potentially good is drowned out by the determination of director Joel Hopkins’ to bathe everything in excruciatingly twee, sub-Richard Curtis fakery.

In Souvenir, Isabelle Huppert plays a factory worker with a dark past: she once represented France in the Eurovision Song Contest, losing out to Abba. It’s a fact Huppert’s Laura wants to keep hidden, yet as Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a young co-worker and amateur boxer, takes a shine to her, she starts entertaining the idea of a comeback, with Jean as her manager and lover. It’s not the most promising of set-ups, but Huppert has a lightness of touch that makes it all rather sweet and the film takes an unassuming approach to the central romance, pleasingly refusing to make a big deal of the age difference.