Producers: Nicky Kentish Barnes, Jemima Khan, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner Director: Shekhar Kapur Screenplay: Jemima Khan Cast: Lily James, Shazad Latif, Emma Thompson, Shabana Azmi, Sajal Aly, Oliver Chris, Asim Chaudhry, Jeff Mirza, Alice Orr-Ewing, Iman Boujelouah, Mim Shaikh, Pakiza Baig, Miriam Haque and Alice Orr-Ewing Distributor: Shout! Studios
Rom-com conventions get a cross-cultural slant in Shekhar Kapur’s seriocomic look at arranged marriage in an increasingly westernized world. Tina Turner’s best-selling song provides an appropriate title for a picture that might also have been called by an alternative one suggested in the movie itself—“Love, Contractually.” Unfortunately, as filled with clichéd characters and predictable situations as it is, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” often has the feel of a legal document, substituting formula for spontaneity.
The script by Jemima Khan focuses on Zoe Stevenson (Lily James), a documentary filmmaker working in London. When her producers nix her latest proposal—a treatment of honor killings—as having little room for upbeat treatment, she impulsively pitches an alternative, an insider portrait of an arranged marriage from courtship to ceremony.
The idea is prompted by the announcement by Kazim Khan (Shazad Latif), the handsome doctor of Pakistani background who’s been Zoe’s pal since they were next-door neighbors that he’s decided to go along with the suggestion of his parents Aisha (Shabana Azmi) and Zahid (Jeff Mirza) that they assist him in finding an appropriate bride. Zoe is incredulous that he’s chosen to go the traditional route, but he’s had a rocky dating road; his younger brother Farooq (Mim Shaikh), moreover, has a happy assisted marriage to Yasmin (Iman Boujelouah), while his sister Jamila (Miriam Haque), who wed a British man, is estranged from the family, especially criticized by his sternly rigorous grandmother (Pakiza Baig). Kaz also gets a few opportunities for serious observations about the social difficulties of being British-Pakistani. Zoe, moreover, has long resisted commitment herself, and is further upset when her friend (Alice Orr-Ewing), whose children she often regales with fairy stories about princesses, is confronted by her husband’s infidelity.
Initially Kaz is reluctant to have Zoe film his search for a bride, but eventually gives in, and she begins filming interviews of the meetings he and his parents have with gregarious marriage broker Mo (Asim Chaudhry), and the group sessions in which he and other would-be grooms meet with prospective brides, Mo prodding them with words of encouragement. When all of that proves unsuccessful, his parents suggest a Pakistani girl, and Kazim meets Maymouna (Sajal Aly) on line. Their conversation hardly strikes sparks, but the premise of the system is that love will come after the wedding, not before it.
So Zoe and her camera—along with her insistently bubbly mom Cath (Emma Thompson), the long-time (if rather condescending) friend of the Khans who’s trying to prod her daughter into a relationship with likable but bland vet James (Oliver Chris) in her own western way—travel to Lahore for the nuptials of Kaz and Maymouna. It’s here that production designer Simon Elliott, costumer Caroline McCall and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin get the chance to show off with images of Bollywood-like voluptuousness, while composer Nitin Sawhney brings out the big guns. It’s also here that Thompson, whose performance has been ludicrously broad from the start, goes totally overboard participating in a dance number.
The proceedings, moreover, show that much to Kazim’s dismay, his bride proves far less demure than she originally seemed, and her parents believed. Nonetheless the ceremony proceeds and the newlyweds return to London. So, of course, does Zoe, only to find that the ostensibly puppy-doggish James is made of sterner stuff than she imagined. Where all this is headed will have been apparent to any sentient viewer from the movie’s first minutes, but screenwriter Jemima Khan (onetime wife of the former Pakistani cricketer and prime minister Imran Khan) really lays on the schmaltz at the close, with a baby (of course) melting the hearts of the entire Khan family, erasing old animosities and restoring domestic bonds. As for Kazim and Zoe, well, you know. Editors Guys Bensley and Nick Moore might have speeded up the finale a bit, but instead they assist in milking it for all it’s worth.
Subtlety is hardly the strong suit of “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” but James and Latif are attractive leads even if they lack real charisma, and though Thompson’s antic can be irritating, Azmi and Mirza make an effort to mitigate the stereotypical elements of their roles, and Baig scowls disdainfully as grandma until the script requires her to smile at the end.
So the film brings a bit of Pakistani spice to the usual rom-com formula, but even the most expensive saffron couldn’t make the inevitability of the plot palatable.