American author Nicholas Sparks has been watching his novels re-purposed for the big screen for over a decade now. The Notebook (2004) is perhaps the most widely adored example, though it hardly garnered universal acclaim; still, it did good business at the box office and paved the way for a stream of further Sparks adaptations. The latest in this line of suspiciously familiar love stories is Lasse Hallström’s Safe Haven (2013). The film sees Julianne Hough drift into the life of Josh Duhamel, so that suitably toned and tanned bodies can frolic in warming golden light between gripping one another tightly – now where have we seen this before?
A terrified young woman (Hough) frantically packs a bag and leaps aboard the first Greyhound bus out of town, evading pursuing police officer Tierney (David Lyons) by a hair’s breadth. She alights in a sun-bleached fishing village, reveals herself as Katie, and sets up in a secluded house after taking a job at a waterside restaurant. Her time in this littoral paradise is divided between waiting tables, redecorating, strolling with her newfound pal, Jo (Cobie Smulders), and trying desperately not to make eyes at hunky single-dad shopkeeper, Alex (Duhamel). Back in the dark and dingy city, however, Tierney refuses to give up the ghost and soon an APB is out for the supposedly murderous Katie.
Fans that have seen their fair share of films based on Sparks’ oeuvre – or even just the one, if truth be told – will be fairly confident of several upcoming plot beats pretty early on. Safe Haven’s general inevitability is not what derails it, though, quite so much as a couple of clearly signposted narrative twists – one of which is more likely to elicit hoots of laughter than gasps of surprise. The plotting is flimsy from the offset but troubles are heaped on further by Hallström’s decision to jettison Tierney’s more complex role from the book. Rather than taking an active part of the proceedings, he is little more than a peripheral dark presence, disrupting the narrative in order to set up a sadly obvious reveal later on in the film.
However, Hallström don’t stop with making just one character horribly two-dimensional. Despite Hough and Duhamel’s best efforts to inject some chemistry into proceedings, their relationship is gratingly insipid stuff. Neither is given any opportunity to add depth to their supposedly haunted characters, and although there are a couple of tender moments amongst the schmaltz, it’s precious little respite.
In the end, many people going into this film will be well aware of just what it is they’re about to watch and will argue that they do not mind it being predictable. Safe Haven is more than that though; it’s badly executed, with a mind-numbingly banal plot and an utterly ridiculous finale. Those hankering for a Sparks yarn would be best off staying at home and dusting off their DVD of The Lucky One (2012); comparatively, that’s where safety lies.