The British rom com is basically my all-time favorite movie genre, so What’s Love Got to Do With It was a sure bet for me, especially since it stars Emma Thompson, my favorite actress ever. It did not disappoint, even though Thompson had a side role in this one, as the whacky mother of the main character, unlucky-in-love documentary filmmaker Zoe (Downton Abbey’s Lily James).
Zoe is likable, if a bit frustrating, as she cycles through and sabotages every relationship she has, much to the exasperation of her “mum,” who is hilariously eager to marry off her only child. A mainstay in their lives is their enduring friendship with the lovable Pakistani Muslim family next door, who are also keen to marry off their single son, Kaz (Shazad Latif).
Though Zoe and Kaz have grown up next door to one another, as Kaz points out, there is still “a continent between them,” and most of the movie explains why this is so. While Zoe can swipe left or right or whatever in her attempts to find a new boyfriend, Kaz is under a much more constrained set of cultural expectations. Finally, he agrees to an “assisted marriage,” the new title for what was once arranged marriage. In this modern paradigm, couples are allowed to spend some time together to see if they are compatible, but really, Kaz’s family is in the driver’s seat, not him. When he becomes engaged to the mysterious Maymouna, without really knowing her, Zoe decides to film the whole process from London to Lahore, Pakistan, for a documentary called Love Contractually, one of the film’s cheeky winks to the British rom coms of yore. (One of the early title suggestions was When Harry Was Forced to Meet Sally.)
Written by Jemima Khan, a white British woman once married to the prime minister of Pakistan, the film is surprisingly sympathetic and even frankly admiring of “assisted marriages.” (“Surprising” considering Khan’s “love marriage” with a Pakistani Muslim did not work out.) It points out that while the British divorce rate overall is 55% for what Kaz’s family calls “love marriage,” the divorce rate of arranged or assisted marriages is only 6%. The script, then, is compassionate to all parties involved—Kaz and Zoe, Maymouna, Kaz’s traditional, loving parents, and their daughter, who married outside the faith and with whom they have no contact. (Yes, somehow Kaz’s parents still seem loving—and very, very torn.)
There are few surprises; however, this film has insightful, zingy dialogue, depth of character, and an underlying empathy for all involved that elevates it. Thompson, as always, is a hoot as Zoe’s over-the-top mother. She is clearly having a ball in this role. James and Latif are endearing as the two leads—you will root for them from the start, whether they end up together or not. (Rated PG-13 for language, suggestive dialogue. VOD on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ and other platforms)