A dark and stormy night. A scared young woman running desperately through the rain, seeking shelter even as her hand still grips a bloody knife. A fraught escape by bus to somewhere else, even as a detective bears down in hot pursuit. Who is this woman, and what has she done?
Such is the tantalizing opening of Safe Haven, the Lasse Hallstrom movie based on popular author Nicholas Sparks’ novel. The frantic damsel is Katie (Julianne Hough) and it’s unclear whether she’s a murderess or an unwitting bystander—that is, unless you’re the type of viewer who is dumb enough to actually believe that anybody as sunnily dispositioned and plucky as Katie is could possibly kill somebody. Hough’s performance is likeable, but she’s not Jean Simmons in Angel Face. Katie drops anchor in a small seaside town, where she meets Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower with two kids and a soulful manner. It’s clear where this is headed, but not without a few twists, most of them expected.
While the revelation of the bad guy is nothing surprising, and the ending a foregone conclusion, the movie does manage to supply a nice sense of place and community, and to let its budding romance evolve naturally. Alex’s patient pursuit of Katie parallels nicely with his own unease at moving on and at possibly uprooting his children, one of whom alternates between passive aggression and plain old obnoxiousness. By the time the reveal is set in motion, however, we’ve been asked to swallow far too many ridiculous factors—one can imagine Alex and Katie and the kids reminiscing about that crazy time the psychotic almost murdered her and burned down the house, or, over a candlelit dinner, Katie asking Alex if he remembers how he once thought she was a cold-blooded killer? More champagne, please! There is the lump-in-the-throat ending, inevitable in a Sparks story, but weirdly satisfying in what is basically a Lifetime movie filmed with better-looking stars and snazzy production values.