Lasse Hallstrom’s new film does exactly what an adaptation should: It turns the original material’s greatest flaws into assets. Safe Haven, based on Nicholas Sparks’ bestselling novel, is a sentimental romantic thriller. But it’s a well-made sentimental romantic thriller, and that makes all the difference.
The film follows the path of a desperate young woman (Julianne Hough of Rock of Ages) whom we first see rushing from a house in which something violent has happened. She eludes an angry Boston cop at the station and escapes on a bus heading south. Eventually she gets off for a bathroom break in the pretty North Carolina town of Southport — the movie was filmed there — and impulsively decides to stay.
She finds a job and a house to rent easily (the film skims over these issues swiftly, which is ideal for the pacing but raises the question of where she got so much cash while fleeing in terror). She introduces herself to her new neighbor (Cobie Smulders) as Katie, though that’s not her name. She also meets Alex, a handsome shop owner (Josh Duhamel, definitely worth getting off the bus for) with two young kids. He’s widowed; his wife died of cancer, because someone always does in a Sparks novel. Katie wants to keep her distance, but really, who could?
The courtship between the couple makes up most of Safe Haven. Interspersed with the blossoming of their romance are scenes that focus on the cop (David Lyons), who seems to be growing ever more frantic. The balance between the two plotlines is crucial, and Hallstrom (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) rearranges the book’s chronology a bit to keep the film moving in the right direction. The love story uses natural elements to reveal the nature of the unfolding relationship; scenes are either bathed in drowsy sunlight or drowned in fierce rainstorms, signaling the characters’ changing moods. Short flashbacks pop up at the perfect intervals, just enough to keep the audience interested, if not guessing. Safe Haven is more date movie than thriller, so if it’s hardcore action you seek, look elsewhere.
Hallstrom directed Dear John, which was also based on a Sparks novel, and has adapted films from novels before — notably The Shipping News and The Cider House Rules. The novels on which those films were based (by Annie Proulx and John Irving respectively) were far more complex than Sparks’ Safe Haven. But that simplicity works in Hallstrom’s favor here; there’s nothing that has to be left out for expediency’s sake, no reason to stretch the film beyond the two-hour mark. He puts together the film in a way that lends power to moments that might have seemed hard to believe otherwise, making Safe Haven a safe bet for anybody craving romance.
Cast: Josh Duhamel, Julianne Hough, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons.
Director: Lasse Hallstrom.
Screenwriters: Leslie Bohem, Dana Stevens. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks.
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Ryan Kavanaugh, Nicholas Sparks.
A Relativity Media release. Running time: 115 minutes. Thematic material involving threatening behavior, violence and sexuality. Playing at area theaters.