Nicholas Sparks has penned a number of romance-filled novels that are popular enough that film adaptations are foregone conclusions. The Notebook, which is arguably Sparks’ most famous adapted work, is still held as the gold standard for romantic dramas. Regrettably, women who are hoping to find another aching romance here will be disappointed, while their boyfriends, lamenting their misfortune in having to watch another romantic drama, will be pleasantly surprised. Safe Haven is mostly a prototypical romantic comedy melded with a prototypical thriller. In fact, this is a wholly solid movie that only dips into the genre-ubiquitous absurdity in some regards.
“Katie” (Julianne Hough), covered in blood, flees her home. Presented through incomplete flashbacks, it’s obvious that she has stabbed her husband, and now she needs to put some distance between herself and the incident. She changes her appearance and gets on a bus heading out of town, narrowly missing a police detective (David Lyons) who is desperate to find her. Katie finds herself in a small, sleepy town in North Carolina and decides to stay, starting over and making a new life for herself with the friendly townsfolk, which includes a curious neighbor, Jo (Cobie Smulders), as well as good-looking, single-father Alex (Josh Duhamel). But as her new life and relationship with Alex begins to brighten, the determined police detective threatens to destroy Katie’s happiness with her dark past.
Safe Haven is a surprisingly dark movie, especially for people expecting a treacly romance. The major characters are all wounded to varying degrees. Alex lost his wife to cancer, and struggles to raise his children by himself. Whenever he’s conflicted he enters his “wife’s room” for solace, thumbing through the prepared letters she wrote for her children for specific events that she wouldn’t be alive to witness. Katie is a battered wife, and watching her fall to her hands and knees to pick up broken glass during yet another fight with her husband is unpleasant to watch on a disquieting subconscious level. The police detective is an alcoholic who drinks consistently and constantly. Even Jo, the curious neighbor, has her own uniquely sad problems. These depressing aspects and more won’t exactly stimulate any romantic feelings in audiences.
Thankfully, a good chunk of the story is devoted to Alex’s and Katie’s blossoming romance. This portion is solid, but also straightforward. Two incomplete people come together to make each other whole again while occasionally stumbling over personal hurdles on the way to love. There aren’t any real surprises here. Boy loses girl on cue and as expected. Here it’s because Alex can’t trust Katie after discovering that she’s a murder suspect. It’s when boy gets girl back that the film dips into absurdity momentarily. It just seems like poor judgment on Alex’s part to try and win back a woman who allegedly murdered her husband. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of canoe rides, runs through the rain and slow, passionate lovemaking to swell the hearts of genre fans.
Audiences, however, will be surprised at the thriller elements of the film. The police detective is a truly menacing character, especially after he’s three sheets to the wind and walking around with a loaded revolver. Older audiences will be reminded of the Julia Roberts film Sleeping with the Enemy. So when the police detective appears behind Katie as she goes off to explore a sound, it won’t be surprising to hear people squeal in tense surprise. This portion of the film is also well-done, but given the genre of the film, this aspect feels out of place.
Overall, the cast does a great job delivering straightforward performances. Special recognition goes to Mimi Kirkland, who plays Alex’s daughter Lexie. She is amazingly cute, finding the right balance between her age and her maturity, and audiences will smile whenever she’s in the scene. Julianne Hough holds her own throughout the film, but there are times when her acting chops aren’t able to create the emotion needed to react to a situation, like when a gun is pointed at her. She doesn’t translate the fear her character feels to audiences in a meaningful way.
Finally, for those who have not read the book, there is a reveal that will feel absolutely out of place and will add an unnecessary element to the film. It doesn’t break the film by any means, but it does further throw into question the kind of film Safe Haven is trying to be. Is it a romance? Is it a thriller? Is it something completely different? The answer won’t matter to those simply looking for solid entertainment – which this film definitely provides – but everyone else may be disappointed.