Think about it: when did you last see a great British romcom? Can you even remember the last time anyone achieved that perfect alchemy between wistful longing, self-deprecating humour and characters who live in incredibly nice houses? There’s been endless fretting about whether the genre can adapt to a more inclusive, feminist age – but with the big-hearted What’s Love Got to Do With It?, we can call off the search party. The first feature film written by Jemima Khan is a charming cross-cultural comedy that can be ranked alongside British classics like Bend It Like Beckham, and has the confidence of a Richard Curtis classic.
Boy, here, does not meet girl – he’s known her since they were kids, their families living next door to one another. Zoe (Lily James) now makes documentaries and Kaz (Shazad Latif) is a doctor; they are best friends, having long been part of the fabric of one another’s lives. Kaz has decided that he wants to have an arranged marriage, meaning boy will actually meet girl once she’s also met his Pakistani parents. Zoe, searching for her next project, convinces Kaz to let her film his journey, and explore how arranged marriages have evolved.
The tone is distinctly feelgood, but the film, directed by Shekhar Kapur, thoughtfully explores the different ways that relationships can be built, and what cultures can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be pragmatic about relationships, rather than blindly led by the tempers of passion? And do western relationships owe more to the idea of arranged marriage than we realise? What about dating apps or, say, the royal family? A clever scene references the moment Prince Charles shattered a thousand fairytale dreams with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Diana; these ideas are closer to home than we think.
James and Latif are a magnetic pair of leads, with Zoe wedded to her independence and Kaz gently challenging her preconceptions. (Zoe does live on an inexplicably nice houseboat for a freelance documentary filmmaker, which, as we know, is a crucial staple of British romcoms.)
The film, too, is a brilliant showcase for British comic talent, with Asim Chaudhry as a wheeler-dealer matchmaker, and comedy duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen as a pair of TV commissioners who compulsively come up with silly ideas. And as Zoe’s mum Cath, Emma Thompson delivers a winningly funny, frantic performance, constantly thrilled by her growing knowledge of cultural differences. (When told that an arranged marriage can be dissolved by simply saying, “I divorce you,” she remarks, “I wish we had that here.”)
Towards the end, the film moves into more expansive territory as a bittersweet family drama, delivering a gentle message about acceptance. But What’s Love Got to Do With It? shines best as a crowd-pleasing comedy, and a sign that British romcoms aren’t dead: they were only sleeping.
Dir: Shekhar Kapur. Starring: Lily James, Shazad Latif, Emma Thompson, Shabana Azmi, Sajal Aly and Jeff Mirza. 12A, 109 mins
‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ is in cinemas from 24 February