Siskel and Ebert often discussed this cinematic litmus test: would the movie you're watching be more interesting than watching a documentary about the same actors having lunch together? Last Chance Harvey, although not a documentary, almost seems tailored to that question. In fact, the characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson strike up a conversation in an airport pub, and he buys her a meal. The movie doesn't seem concerned with a plot; it's built more on just watching the interaction between these two actors.
Harvey Shine (Hoffman), a failed Jazz pianist who writes commercial jingles, arrives in London for his daughter's wedding and over the course of 24 hours, misses his flight back to New York, gets fired, and worst of all, finds out his daughter wants her stepfather to give her a way. Kate Walker (Thompson), also single, works at the airport, is set up on blind dates that go nowhere, and is annoyed by her bored mother's frequent phone calls. Harvey and Kate meet at the airport, and eventually Harvey becomes determined to see her more.
The best way to describe the romance to low-key. It takes around 30 minutes for Harvey and Kate to properly meet, and from there, their relationship develops gradually as Harvey at first is to desperate to talk to someone who's not going shut him out while Kate gradually warms up to his charms. I must say, it's nice to watch a movie where two people talk about more than just plot exposition. Hoffman and Thompson are definitely good enough actors to make their characters interesting based on that, and the movie is at its best when they're engaging each other.
As a result of this structure, the movie is not entirely formulaic. Sure, we want them to get together by the end, but their interaction progresses and changes. It's not a checklist of cliches: meet, happy montage, conflict, misunderstanding, reconciliation, end. The romance feels more natural and less conformed to the genre expectations. There is one misunderstanding late in the film, but it's not irritating or obvious as other examples. There is real pathos in watching Harvey and Kate connect. They're lonely people, emotionally distant from their families, and they bond.
The film around Hoffman and Thompson isn't as interesting. The other characters aren't really fleshed out; they're just kind of there to serve a purpose. They're more there to be the background of the protagonists rather than factor into the plot, and some of it goes on too long.
Last Chance Harvey works on the strengths of its leads. It's rare to see a movie compelling enough just to hear its actors talk.