By now, Southport has played many roles in the movies: the sinister, decaying fishing village in “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” the site of Deep South zaniness in “Crimes of the Heart” and even World War II Long Island in the TV movie “Spies.” In “Safe Haven,” however, Southport finally gets to be itself – and it’s never looked better. Fortunately, the movie isn’t too bad, either.
The film faithfully follows the text of the Nicholas Sparks best-seller, opening as Katie (Julianne Hough), a battered wife, finds shelter with a kindly neighbor. After cutting and dyeing her hair, she heads for a Boston bus station, eluding her husband, a creepy and short-tempered police detective.
She buys a ticket to Atlanta, but it’s not an express. After detouring through western North Carolina – there’s a gorgeous shot of the bus rounding the Linn Cove Viaduct near Grandfather Mountain – the bus makes a stop on the Southport waterfront, with moored sailboats and seagulls circling. Katie decides to stay. She soon makes friends with Alex, the hunky manager of the local convenience store (Josh Duhamel) and his two adorable kids. Alex is stuttery and all thumbs around her; clearly, he’s smitten. Plus, he’s a widower. Slowly, Katie learns to love and trust again. Guys will just have to squirm quietly through the movie’s first half; it takes an hour for Hubby to find the clues to where Katie is and speed south on the interstate.
The movie’s prime asset, however, is director Lasse Hallström, an Oscar nominee (“The Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”) who leaves the movie with a high gloss. Deft editing camouflages the movie’s more derivative elements.
The Swedish Hallström, moreover, seems genuinely to have fallen in love with Southport. His camera lens lingers over the curving live oaks, the Spanish moss, the shimmer on the water. Most of the Southport scenes seem suffused in a golden glow, like the sunrise-over-the-river shots that pop up again and again. By, contrast, Boston is shot mainly under a cloudy sky, with fluorescent blues predominating. If this doesn’t raise real estate values in southeastern Brunswick County, I don’t know what will.
Not that everything is perfect. The plot strains disbelief at times. The bad husband, drunk, pink-eyed and haggard, staggers through the middle of a Fourth of July parade, manhandling every blonde woman he sees – yet no policeman intervenes. “Safe Haven” doesn’t seem to think much of Brunswick County law enforcement. After the bad detective sends out an all-points bulletin for Katie as a “first-degree murder suspect,” the wanted poster hangs for weeks in the local police station, yet nobody (except, finally, Alex) notices the resemblance to a local. Like most Sparks adaptations, “Safe Haven” is a slick chick flick that won’t earn any Oscars but should do very well at the box office. And Southport should do well as a result.
Among the recognizable landmarks are the Provision Company at the yacht basin–which plays “Ivan’s,” the colorful diner where Katie finds a waitressing job– the Moore Street Market and the Fort Fisher ferry. Wilmington appears as well, but in deep camouflage. The Boston suburb that Katie flees is a neighborhood on and around Metts Avenue.