‘Love is better when it starts as a simmer and grows to a boil’. That’s the general vibe behind Elizabeth and Bandit Queen director Shekhar Kapur’s first rom-com, a multi-cultural Richard Curtis-alike confection that’s inspired by screenwriter Jemima Khan’s own love story with Pakistani politician Imran Khan. It’s channelled into the story of two childhood friends, Zoe (Lily James), a documentary filmmaker, and Kaz (Shazad Latif), a doctor, as they manoeuvre around their parents’ well-intentioned efforts to help them find love.
After several failed pitches to her producers, Zoe eventually lands on the idea of following Kaz on his journey to find love via a Pakistani assisted marriage. This excites her virtue signalling bosses, who view diversity as nothing more than a box-ticking exercise (they want to call the documentary ‘Love Contractually’).
Chaperoned by his eager parents, Kaz begins his journey with a visit to romantic fixer Mo the Matchmaker (People Just Do Nothing’s Asim Chaudhry, a blast). The cupid-for-hire salivates at the prospect of pairing the dashing doctor with one of the eligible bachelorettes in his database.
Less of a fly-on-the-wall and more of a gnat-in-the-ear, Zoe can’t help but express her scepticism when Kaz finds his bride-to-be (Sajal Aly) and sets off to Pakistan for the wedding. The tension between the two offers up interesting talking points about British identity and the versions of marriage that are deemed as acceptable. These moments dotted throughout, poignantly address the West’s unsavoury tendency to turn its noise up at cultural practices that don’t align with its gaze.
The lack of chemistry is a problem but there’s plenty of humour and visual flair
The film lays bare western hypocrisy, too, when Zoe’s mother (Emma Thompson) sets her up with a local vet. As to be expected, there is little spark between them. More damagingly for the romance you know is coming, it’s also in short supply between Zoe and Kaz.
But while that lack of chemistry is a problem, Kapur does find plenty of humour and visual flair in the contrast between two cultures, making welcome fun of British self-righteousness, while also showcasing eye-catching Pakistani dance routines and the thriving markets of Lahore.
And What’s Love Got to Do With It’s innate sincerity feels refreshing, too. The non-judgmental message – that there are endless routes to finding love and that no one owns the map – may not be revolutionary, but Jemima Khan’s modern, personal spin on the concept gives it a likeable new freshness.
In UK cinemas Jan 27, 2023.