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Review: ‘Safe Haven’ has chemistry, succeeds with ‘Sparks formula’

Courtesy of MCT

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Nicholas Sparks movies are tricky. A total of seven of his 17 best-selling novels have been released on the big screen, and Thursday’s “Safe Haven,” directed by Oscar-nominated Lasse Hallström (“Chocolat,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”),makes eight. Having seen every single one of those eight, I can confirm there are certain striking similarities among them.
Most have a Southern setting (frequently small-town North Carolina), feature two good-looking romantically inclined white adults/young adults and have a terrible tragedy (cancer, death or a combination of the two). You would think this tried-and-true formula would become tiresome for viewers, but “Safe Haven” adds the new and refreshing element of suspense. There is the standard balance of romance and tragedy, but it is combined with the jarring reality of domestic abuse.
“Safe Haven” centers around the story of Erin Tierney (played by Julianne Hough of “Dancing With The Stars”), a young woman trapped in an abusive marriage. Erin eventually escapes and finds her way to Southport, a sleepy little town on the North Carolina coast. She chops off her long brunette hair, dyes it platinum blonde, and starts a new life as Katie, a mysterious stranger who buys a house and secures a waitressing position at a local restaurant.
It is evident Katie is recovering from a horrifying situation (the sound of a car outside her house throws her into an absolute panic), and through flashbacks we see that Katie stabbed her husband (David Lyons) in self-defense after he nearly strangled her to death.
Her husband, however, is a policeman and is relentless in his search to find her. Snippets of Katie’s new life in Southport, complete with the typical Sparks sunsets, are jarringly interrupted by grainy black-and-white surveillance photos and footage as her husband uses the precinct’s resources to track her down.
Katie is understandably wary of human interaction, but the handsome widowed store clerk Alex (Josh Duhamel) with the help of his adorable daughter Lexie (Mimi Kirkland), and Katie’s neighbor Jo (played by Cobie Smulders of “How I Met Your Mother”) eventually wears down her defenses and shows her what a healthy relationship can look like.
Alex and Erin’s courtship is true to the Sparks formula of getting caught in the rain while taking a canoe ride along a breathtaking river dotted with picturesque weeping willows. These idyllic sequences, however, continue to be interspersed with glimpses into the husband’s search and systematic spiral into what can only be called absolute loss of control. He abandons everything (most notably, sobriety) in his stalking of Katie, and the switch from sunsets to the sweaty, panicky husband foreshadows a terrifying confrontation.
The ending is a triple-punch of action and suspense, with a twist some might see coming if they aren’t distracted by the edge-of-your-seat climax. More than half of the audience was in tears by closing credits.
Ultimately, the movie is a successful combination of romance and suspense, with a little comedy sprinkled in for good measure (6-year-old Kirkland steals the show in this regard). Duhamel and Hough have undeniable chemistry, and I daresay Hough really grows as an actress. Every interaction is realistic and well-acted. “Safe Haven” ultimately stays true to the Sparks formula without being stale.

Grade: A-

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