Largely set (and partially filmed) in Southport, North Carolina, the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation really takes place in Sparksville, USA—a picturesque place where cotton dresses flatteringly cling, amour-enhancing thunderstorms roll in at just the right moment, and there’s always an American flag waving somewhere. Our heroine, Katie (Dancing with the Stars vet Julianne Hough), is a young woman lamming it from Boston under mysterious circumstances, which the film explains piece by piece as it goes along. When she steps off the bus and into Sparksville—catching the eye of Alex (Josh Duhamel), a handsome young widower—Katie decides to stay a spell, hoping her past won’t find her.
Naturally it does, but not before love blossoms, and the leisurely pace with which Lasse Hallström (directing his second Sparks adaptation, following 2010’s Dear John) brings the leads together is the film’s best quality. Safe Haven’s attractive backdrops even make it easy to overlook that neither Duhamel nor, especially, Hough has the gravity to sell a romance rooted in tragedy and strife. Any residual charm evaporates when the third-act dramatics start piling up and a must-be-seen-to-be-believed final twist redefines the word shameless, even by Sparksville standards.
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