His name may be Harvey Shine. But for this sixtysomething composer of commercial jingles, life long ago lost its luster. Dreams of becoming a jazz pianist never materialized. Divorce left him broken. And as Harvey prepares to jet to London for his daughter Susan’s wedding, his boss warns that any more mistakes on the job will mean the end of his professional road.
“There are no more chances, Harvey,” he says.
An intercontinental change of venue hardly brightens the horizon. Susan’s cool response—and an even frostier one from his ex-wife, Jean—remind Harvey of his failures as a father and a husband. His penchant for social gaffes, like taking business calls during the rehearsal dinner, doesn’t endear him to anyone either. And Susan’s news that she wants her stepfather, Brian, to give her away during the ceremony hits Harvey like a final sucker punch to the gut.
But Harvey isn’t the only one slogging through a disappointing life. Fortysomething Kate Walker spends her days attending to passengers at Heathrow Airport (including, briefly, a very rude Harvey when he first gets off his plane). Romance novels, white wine and dreams of a writing career offer momentary diversions. But love has eluded Kate, despite the well-intentioned attempts of her friends and the suffocating concern of her mother.
Harvey’s path crosses Kate’s again when he skips Susan’s wedding reception to catch a plane for an important meeting. Harvey misses the plane, of course, and promptly gets fired over the phone. Assuming residency at a nearby airport bar, the beaten-down American loudly tries to drown his sorrows. And it’s Kate who informs him that the strategy likely won’t get the job done. Never mind that she’s doing the same thing—a fact Harvey helpfully points out.
In that brief encounter, both recognize a spark of honesty and zest neither has felt in a long time … and an unlikely romance begins to bloom.
Despite the many setbacks he’s experienced in life, Harvey recognizes an opportunity with Kate as the two begin to connect, and he seizes it. Kate initially tries to talk him out of pursuing her. But his determination to woo her gently overwhelms her meager defenses. Harvey is willing to keep taking risks, even though there’s always the possibility of further hurt. He reassures Kate that he’s up to doing whatever it takes to make their relationship work.
As Harvey and Kate begin to tell their stories to one another, Harvey describes the hurt he’s just experienced by essentially being rejected by his daughter. Kate convinces him that he must return to the wedding reception, where Susan is visibly relieved that her father has come back.
Harvey’s losses in life have also taught him significant lessons about what matters most. In an awkward-yet-poignant toast to his daughter, he acknowledges that the children of divorce suffer the most, and he compliments Susan on having become a strong, determined and sensitive woman despite the “fracture of her birth family.” He graciously recognizes Susan’s stepfather for shouldering the fathering load that he couldn’t. The looks he shares with Susan and with his ex-wife in this scene seem to communicate forgiveness and acceptance that’s long been absent.
In one of their conversations, Kate confesses that she had an abortion in college. “I was pregnant once,” she says. “I didn’t have it. I didn’t think twice about it. That’s what all the smart girls did.” But years later, the act still haunts her as she thinks about who her child would have become. She tears up wondering if her baby would have grown into someone who was “clever.” Obviously, Kate’s abortion was a much bigger deal, one with long-lasting emotional consequences, than she realized at the time.
Oonagh tries to set Kate up with a friend of her boyfriend. He turns out to be much younger than Kate, which prompts Oonagh to say that he’ll have “more energy,” presumably for sex. She also points out, suggestively, his large hands. Kate’s mother, Maggie, calls her daughter incessantly, asking for updates on what Kate is doing and who she’s with. Oonagh says of Maggie’s penchant for up-to-the-minute news, “She’s like a human contraceptive. Honest to God, she’s ruining your sex life.” It’s therefore implied that lonely Kate would be open to a casual sexual encounter, though the film suggests such encounters have been very rare for her.
Kate and Harvey share a single quick kiss. Susan and Scott’s wedding kiss is also shown. A few characters display a bit of cleavage. Kate jokingly tells her mother that she’s wearing a “boob tube and a miniskirt.” An elderly man reads a ridiculously over-the-top passage from a story he’s writing about a violent, sex-crazed psychopath; the tale relates his love for the smell of sex and the taste of blood. Kate tells Harvey how her father left her mother and went to France with his secretary.
None, really. But Kate’s mother does witness a neighbor carrying something wrapped in burlap into a backyard smokehouse. The shape resembles a body, and she thinks the man is a killer disposing of his victims. (He isn’t.)
A dozen uses of the s-word (half of which take place in one conversation). One abuse of Jesus’ name and two of God’s. “Bloody” pops up.
Harvey and Kate both tend to use alcohol to wage war on their woes and calm their nerves. Harvey has a drink on the plane and tells the woman next to him he needs it to fight off his fear of flying. After he misses his return flight, he quickly downs three drinks at an airport bar. Kate and Harvey also drink socially. Other folks drink pints and wine, and several empty beer bottles are visible on a table. Champagne shows up at Susan and Scott’s rehearsal dinner and again at the wedding reception.
When he misses his flight, Harvey rudely cuts in front of others and demands service from the airline. Kate makes a meanspirited, sarcastic comment to her mother.
As implausible as their quickly kindled romance might seem, Harvey and Kate are about as regular and down to earth as anyone you’re likely to see on the big screen. That’s one of the things that drew actress Emma Thompson to the story. “I want to see people who I actually believe to exist, who are vaguely like me, falling in love,” she says. “People who aren’t perfect, who aren’t so beautiful that anyone would go for them. You don’t see love stories about that, you just see very beautiful people falling in love with each other, and I’m just bored, I’m bored witless [of that].”
Even more unusual is a story in which the starring couple never even hints at jumping into bed. Indeed, Harvey and Kate share but one modest kiss. (Booze, yes. Sex? No.) Combine that carnal restraint with affirmation of marriage and a reflection on the costs of divorce and abortion, and Last Chance Harvey feels decidedly old-fashioned.
Dustin Hoffman says of the marital themes, “I think one of the things that happens when a marriage fails is that you realize you don’t know what you think you know. You knew that this person was the one for you—or you thought you did—and it shatters your belief system, and you shut down. What makes this film interesting is that these are two people who are no longer in the flush of youth. They’ve been so pained by the expectation of what they thought they were going to have that they very much do not want to get involved with each other, and I think that gives the film tension.”
Less old-fashioned, of course, are the script’s s-words, the interjection of Jesus’ name and a bit of suggestive banter. And I’ve already mentioned the liquor—which is old-fashioned, but not in a positive way.
Last Chance Harvey still surprised me, though, with its honest-feeling attempt at elevating the ordinary along with the importance of family and forgiveness, humility and even the basic value of life.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.