It’s been well over a decade since Shekhar Kapur last featured on the British cinema scene. That was 2007’s risible Elizabeth sequel: The Golden Age. The less said the better. And yet, feels is fitting that Kapur’s return to the main stage plays rather like a callback to a bygone era. What’s Love Got to do With It? revives not Britain’s love affair with lavish period drama but the lush rom coms Richard Curtis made profitable in the nineties. Curtis hasn’t a hand in this one but with the leafy London setting, middle class sensibilities and über-familiar narrative, he’s the only plummy cliché missing.
Only in one respect does Kapur’s encore diverge from the mould of Notting Hill and Four Weddings. The film is written, through the lens of experience, by Jemima Khan and considers the parameters of love as it exists beyond the white and western. In the latter camp is Lily James’ documentary film maker Zoe. An award-winning talent, Zoe’s hard hitting subjects meet critical acclaim but don’t hit the numbers her financiers demand. Presumably this is why she lives on a giant barge? At least she can afford fairy lights.
Shazad Latif plays Kaz, a Muslim bachelor and Zoe’s lifelong friend and neighbour. When Kaz reveals a self-determined intent to pursue arranged marriage as means of walking into love, Zoe’s directorial interest is peaked, even as her whole morality and understanding of her BFF is challenged to the core. That’s even with the modernised name change to ‘assisted’ marriage. In a desperate bid to secure funds from her hapless producers, Zoe promises the wittily titled ‘Love, Contractually’ as her next project. Initial reticence from Kaz soon peters, with Zoe permitted to follow him from awkward profiling session to gorgeous wedding ceremony in a stunningly well shot Lahore, Pakistan.
Rock solid competence drives all that follows. Thoroughly easy watching. A lack of comedy chops behind the scenes shows, of course, with the film often feeling like a repurposed dramedy, its broader strokes somewhat undermining stronger flashes of nuance. Contrasting turns by Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi, as Zoe and Kaz’s respective mothers epitomises this. While Azmi channels a wealth of lived experience through a subtle and organically funny performance, Thompson’s outlandish Cath never exists beyond the sphere of crass – even patronising – caricature. An actor of such calibre can’t help but nail them odd comic line but, for the most part, it’s mostly tired and irksome work.
Perhaps it’s this tonal imbalance that holds the film back from attaining the heights of its globetrotting ambition. As refreshing as the film’s approach is to the taboo concept of modern day arranged marriage, the ultimate message – that love is complicated and there’s no right way to find it – is far from profundity. The pitter patter of Kaz and Zoe’s conversational dynamic has the vibe of a blunted Harry and Sally, with a warm, if not electric, chemistry never quite lighting at the touch paper. It’s sweet stuff but never satiating. Only in the final, pleasingly predictable, act does Khan tug on the right heartstring to elicit genuine emotional interaction. It’s telling that this comes not from the central couple than an outlier.
Nonetheless, James and Latif make for enjoyable company, with just enough gumption and spunk to steer clear of the soft and saccharine. As the ensemble around them grows, so does the resonant reminder that family is everything. It’s not romance and it’s not chocolate boxes or roses. It’s the deep routed connections that cross continents, weathers storms and holds us as one. Love has a lot do with it.