One of the more cutting observations in this pleasingly old-fashioned romcom, directed in the deathless Working Title Films-style by Shekhar Kapur, is on the ever-pertinent topic of cultural diversity and representation. Diversity discourse in the UK and US has been through many iterations over the past decade, with emphasis progressing from merely attaining that “seat at the table”, to more intersectional and radical views, with the sentiment growing, to quote the poet Audre Lorde, that the master’s house can’t be dismantled with the master’s tools. So when in this film -- helmed by a director from the Indian subcontinent, and written by the well-traveled journalist Jemima Khan -- you have a scene where two TV commissioners farcically see diversity features -- casting, subject matter, POV -- as boxes to be ticked, hoping the virtue will shine off onto them, an acerbic, biting point is made.
Although harking back to classic British films on Anglo-Pakistani relations such as My Beautiful Laundrette and East is East, What’s Love Got to Do with It? updates this template for modern times, with the virtues and ensuing backlash to political correctness ever-more present. Through addressing the culturally specific tradition of arranged marriages, the thrust of Khan’s script is that understanding, and real familiarity with another culture, trumps superficial representation politics at every turn, with this marital practice very much at odds with current British liberal mores.
Zoe (the ever-bright-eyed, charming Lily James), a member of the millennial media precariat --- with the last prestigious credit on your CV no guarantee of future work - is written by Khan to have the typical blindspots of a contemporary liberal view. A TV documentary director, she spies Kaz (Shazad Latif), her longtime pal and childhood next-door neighbor, as a perfect subject for her next project, and follows his decision to jilt the dating scene and opt for an arranged, or in the current parlance, “assisted” marriage, which delights his parents (played in stereotypically bumptious fashion by Shabana Azmi and Jeff Mirza). But Zoe, unsatisfied by her app-driven dating life, still holds a mile-high torch for Kaz, and we can feel her rationale for the documentary balanced between supporting and understanding his life choices, but also disapproving of them; the doc is really a platform to woo him herself.
Amusing set-pieces ensue: Kaz’s foul-mouthed, only Urdu-speaking granny has the choicest lines -- no one else understands her, but her often damning judgments on the very haram world around her are helpfully subtitled for us. Asim Chaudhry has a lively cameo as one “Mo the Matchmaker”, who sets up cringe-making speed dating events, with he comperes with the cornball vim of an announcer at a tacky Vegas casino. And when Kaz connects with Zoya (Sajal Aly), the Skype date of his dreams, we can naughtily glimpse his libido finally working, once her video feed flashes up after painful minutes of buffering.
The marriage trip to Lahore, which the wide-eyed Zoe accompanies them on, is the film’s highlight in cinematic style, as Kapur shows his wide-angle choreography chops in the joyous, colorful wedding dance sequences. And then -- drumroll -- we have the anticipated showing of Zoe’s final cut, at none other than the legendary Curzon Mayfair cinema -- a wistful treat for London cinephiles, with the threats for redevelopment that venue is facing. Khan and Kapur reap some belated dramatic tension here, as the documentary scandalizes the audience present -- we can sense that if this were Cannes, it would be serenaded with boos.
The ending is laden with a bit of predictability, and also a growing sense of melodrama, as more family secrets are revealed and unraveled. And we also wished it made us laugh just that bit more -- could Mo the Matchmaker not have been invited to the wedding, film premiere and all the afterparties? But this is a lovely showcase for James and Latif, and an auspicious step from Jemima Khan into the world of feature screenwriting.
UK, 108 minutes, 2022
Dir: Shekhar Kapur
Writ: Jemima Khan
Prod: Nicky Kentish Barnes, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jemima Khan
Exec Prod: Ron Halpern, Sarah Harvey, Sarmad Masud, Joe Naftalin, Katherine Pomfret, Lucas Webb
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Editor: Guy Bensley, Nick Moore
Music: Nitin Sawhney
Cast: Lily James, Shazad Latif, Shabana Azmi, Sajal Aly, Asim Chaudhry, Jeff Mirza, Mim Shaikh and Emma Thompson
Image used with permission.