out of Five
Running time: 115
Watchable, beautifully shot and nicely paced Nicholas Sparks romance, enlivened by strong performances and a decent amount of chemistry between the two leads, though the script takes a nosedive into unintentionally hilarious territory in the final act.
What's it all about?
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (helming his second Sparks adaptation after Dear John), Safe Haven is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks and stars Julianne Hough as Katie, who begins the film fleeing a bloody crime scene in Boston, changing her hair colour and hopping a bus for North Carolina. Arriving in picturesque smalltown Southport, Kate quickly lands herself a house, a job, a friendly neighbour (Cobie Smulders as Jo) and a new love interest in the shape of attractive, widowed shopkeeper Alex (Josh Duhamel).
Encouraged by Jo, Katie bonds with both Alex and his two young children (Mimi Kirkland as Lexie and Noah Lomax as Josh) and the pair soon begin a tentative romance. However, Katie's mysterious past is about to catch up with her in the form of tenacious Boston cop Kevin (David Lyons).
Julianne Hough has extraordinary screen presence, to the point where you can't take your eyes off her; consequently, her performance is the main reason to see this film. Duhamel makes a likeable leading man as Alex and there's strong chemistry between him and Hough, which goes a long way where this sort of thing is concerned. As a result, the rest of the cast barely get a look in, but Smulders is appealing as Jo and Kirkland is flat-out adorable as Lexi.
Fans of both Sparks' novels and their previous film adaptations will know exactly what to expect here, from the achingly picturesque scenery (lovingly photographed by Terry Stacey) to the gorgeousness of the star-crossed leads and the hint of tragedy in the backstory; there's even – yes!- a kissing scene set in a rainstorm. That said, there's nothing inherently wrong with clichés provided they are marshalled correctly and Hallstrom does a good job throughout, maintaining a decent pace and drip-feeding the details of Katie's dark secret to optimal effect.
Apart from the cheesy overload factor (which comes with the territory anyway), the film's main problem is its final act, which feels a little too contrived and is over-reliant on cute-kids-in-peril. Similarly, there's a frankly ridiculous twist that a) the eagle-eyed will spot within a few scenes and b) is guaranteed to provoke gales of unintentional laughter on its eventual reveal, largely because it's so completely unnecessary.
Ridiculous finale aside, Safe Haven is an entirely watchable and beautifully shot romantic drama enlivened by a terrific central performance from Julianne Hough. Worth seeing if you like this sort of thing and at least it's better than the last two Sparks adaptations, The Lucky One and The Last Song.