Advertisement

‘I left the cinema, walked home and announced I was moving’: films that made people emigrate

‘As I binge-watched it hit me: Middle-earth does exist’

The Lord of the Rings led Jason to New Zealand

I grew up in Manchester in the 80s – but in my head I lived in a hobbit hole in the Shire. I went to a rough school, so I used to hide in the library at dinner times and read The Lord of the Rings. At night I’d lie in bed gazing at a circular stain on the carpet, willing it to open into a portal to Middle-earth. I was 11 and lived on a council estate, but I had this vision of myself as a hobbit, smoking a clay pipe and dancing in a field. I was also obsessed with orcs. I was big and rather awkward, so I looked a bit like an orc.

I was in my early 30s when Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings came out, and a lot happier, but still dreaming of Hobbiton. I was binge-watching the DVDs with my wife, Sarah, when it hit me: Middle-earth does exist, and I don’t need a portal. I can fly there in 23 hours. I turned to Sarah and said, “Shall we move to New Zealand?” One of the many things I love about my wife is that she listens to my madder ideas with a careful seriousness. Six months later we were in Auckland.

The first thing I saw at the airport was a statue of a giant dwarf, looming over security. I was ecstatic: I knew at once I hadn’t made a mistake. Wellington airport is even wilder. There’s a giant Gollum, and a lifesize Gandalf rides a massive eagle above the food court.

Sarah and I were aware, when we arrived in New Zealand, that we weren’t hobbits. We were expecting to get jobs and live in a proper house together, like human beings. But my back garden does look as if it belongs to Bilbo Baggins. There are rolling hills, everything is lush and verdant, and all you can hear is birdsong.

We’ve been here 18 years now and have never regretted the move. Sarah is not quite so enamoured of the movies as I am, but she is very supportive. We’ve got lifesize replicas of my favourite characters around the house, and I make costumes, too: there’s a huge collection of swords and troll armour in the guest room. Sarah says my passion for Middle-earth is part of what attracted her to me in the first place. I think she puts up with a lot.

I work as a mental health nurse and of course my life does not always look like a Shire scene, but I’m surprised at how closely my reality resembles the fantasy I had as a kid. A bloke on my street actually played an orc in The Two Towers. New Zealand’s population is so small and the films were such a phenomenon that a surprising number of people I’ve met are connected with the cast and crew. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve made it. I live in Middle-earth, and my neighbour is an orc.

‘When the credits rolled, I was already researching my visa’

Bo left for Bali after watching Eat Pray Love

Julia Roberts riding a bike in Bali in the film Eat Pray Love
Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

I watched Eat Pray Love for the first time in 2021, when I was nursing a broken heart. I was in bed, alone, in Essex, and I had spent most of the day lying horizontal in the dark, drafting increasingly bizarre emails to my ex-boyfriend. I was 27 and in the throes of my first proper breakup. For months all I had done was weep over pictures of my ex and hatch elaborate plans to win him back. I put on Eat Pray Love in an effort to self-soothe, but the choice of film was relatively random; I was also toying with the idea of Pretty Woman. I’m a Julia Roberts fan and I hoped her face might temporarily blot my ex’s out.

The film had a hypnotic effect on me. For 133 minutes I did not look at my phone even once: I was transfixed by Julia. She was heartbroken just like me, but she had taken the initiative to heal herself. She was eating spaghetti, and riding a bicycle, and having sex with Javier Bardem. The Bali scenes were betwitching because Julia seemed so serene. I watched her sitting on a meditation platform and felt desperately envious of her serenity. When the credits rolled, I was already researching my visa. Forty-eight hours later I had booked a one-way flight to Bali.

The days before it were frantic. I sold my laptop to rustle up some moving money, then gave away all my clothes because I had decided to recreate myself, in a new land, as a whole new person. I changed my Tinder settings to “Bali”, so I could scout out future lovers ahead of my arrival, and booked an Airbnb that looked almost identical to the house Julia rents in the movie.

I need to master the art of moving on in a healthy way – I can’t leave the country every time I break up with someone

It was only when I actually touched down that I began to feel a shiver of doubt. Bali was just as idyllic as it had looked on screen, but I’d naively expected to forget my ex as soon as I landed, and of course a flight can’t function like a lobotomy. My villa had its own meditation platform and I remember sitting cross-legged, shellshocked to find I was still thinking about him. About a week in, I tried to recreate the scene where Julia cycles through a rice field and I almost fell off my motorbike because my helmet was full of tears.

Gradually, I began to build a new life here – but the process was lonelier than I had expected and has taken years, not hours. I stopped trying to replicate my favourite parts of the movie and came up with things to do myself. I learned Indonesian and began to speak to people rather than meditating on my platform, alone.

I’m coming up to my three-year anniversary on the island, and I’ve met someone new. It worries me slightly that it’s only since falling in love again that I’ve felt truly happy. I need to master the art of moving on in a healthy way, because I can’t leave the country every time I break up with someone. But perhaps it’s a myth that you can only truly heal alone. Julia meets Javier, after all.

‘Six months later, I was living on the Left Bank’

Jennifer moved to the French capital after watching Cléo from 5 to 7

Actor Corinne Marchand walks down a street in Paris in the film Cléo from 5 to 7, made in 1961
Corinne Marchand in Cléo from 5 to 7. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

As a child, I had a habit of closely identifying with the characters I saw in films. I lived in a sleepy Sussex village but I spent a lot of time in front of the video player, living out a roster of glamorous lives in my imagination. I watched Clueless on repeat and became convinced that, at my core, I was an American cheerleader, trapped in the body of an English nine-year-old. At 17, my dreams were different, but still unrealistic. I watched Y Tu Mama Tambien in my Spanish class, and saved up for a solo trip to Mexico. I wasn’t the prettiest or most popular teenager, but I did not suffer from underconfidence. I returned to Sussex genuinely surprised that I hadn’t been offered a threesome with Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal.

A few years later, I watched Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7. The movie follows two hours in the life of a young Frenchwoman as she walks around the city. Cléo is a pop star, whereas in the other French New Wave films I had seen women didn’t have jobs, or they were shopgirls, or maids. The storyline is tragic – Cléo is waiting to find out whether she has cancer – but that’s part of what moved me about the movie. The film was shot in June 1961, over the course of several days, and it’s now considered a kind of archive of the city because of the documentary-style shots of the urban landscape. Paris looked so beautiful, but it was also unvarnished and visibly dirty, a kind of reflection of Cléo’s inner turmoil. Every street was coloured by her subjective viewpoint, so it felt as if the whole city belonged to her. Village life had made me hungry for a bit of dirt, and freedom. I started applying for jobs in Paris.

Six months later I was living on the Left Bank, in a tiny apartment I had chosen because Agnès Varda had shot part of the film on a street nearby. I slept on a bunk bed, and the shower was in a tiny glass tube in the kitchen, but I was 23, so I didn’t care. I got a job teaching English in a building where there were no working toilets, and spent hours walking around Paris, tracking down landmarks I had seen in the film, with my iPod headphones in.

I like a story about a woman that doesn’t revolve around a man. But I had also seen Amélie, so had visions of finding love

There’s no “boyfriend figure” in Cléo from 5 to 7, which is part of what I liked about it: it’s a story about a woman that doesn’t revolve around a man. But I had also seen Amélie, so I had visions of myself finding passion in the city of love. I found French dating culture confusingly blunt, though. I spoke good French, but it is hard to fully translate your personality into a foreign language. I made French friends, but it was a very slow process. Any time I tried to approach a man at a bar, I got it subtly wrong. He would either tell me to go away immediately because he had a girlfriend, or assume I was just after sex.

After a year of zero lovers, I signed up for online dating, but this was 2011: years before the apps. I joined a website called singlesinparis.com, and it went surprisingly well. I’m still with the Frenchman I went on my first ever Parisian date with, 12 years later.

I plan to stay in France for good – although we did recently move out of Paris, to the riviera, because we had a baby and I didn’t want to raise children in a city. My daughter is actually named after the film; she’s called Cléo. I am aware that I have come full circle: I spent my whole childhood trying to get away from the countryside and now I’m back there. I have a great film collection, though. So once my daughter is old enough, she can start watching movies, and plot her escape.

‘It’s strange to move countries for a film you think is naff’

Georgina headed for Spain because of Vicky Cristina Barcelona

In the noughties I lived in New York, and my life was consumed by work. I was a headhunter, so what I did was not terribly important, but I behaved as though I was going out every day to perform life-saving surgery. I put in 75 hours a week and slept less than four hours a night. My husband is an actor and he often didn’t have a job there at all, so it felt as if we were on entirely different paths. I was so desperately unhappy, I’m not sure he really wanted to be around me. I’m not the greatest person to spend time with when I’m sad.

When I felt particularly overwhelmed, I would crack and take a few hours off, and go to the cinema, alone. One day I bought a ticket for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (above), and at first I thought I hated it. I was rolling my eyes at the ménage à trois storyline. But gradually the film began to work its sly magic on me. The tipping point was a night scene, in which Scarlett Johansson wanders down a beautiful cobblestoned street. I was captivated by all the Catalan extras in the back of the shot, relaxing on balconies, deep in conversation. Watching those people, I became painfully aware that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt relaxed, or had a proper conversation. I sat in the cinema and felt all my frenetic energy to work drain away from me. I walked back to my apartment and announced that I was moving to Barcelona.

My husband was understandably taken aback because I had said “I” was moving, not “we”. He also worried that I had gone mad, because I’d never been to Barcelona in real life, even for a weekend. Perhaps I had a bit. (I’d also quit my job hours after leaving the cinema.) I did hope he would come with me, but I was so convinced I was making the right decision, I was fully prepared to go alone.

We ended up moving to Barcelona together. I remember arriving at our flat and having a momentary panic because it did not look like Vicky Cristina Barcelona at all. Our area was really modern and it was bitterly cold. But once I found my way to the old town, it felt as if I was walking around inside the film. There were lanterns and cobblestones, and when I had a drink at a bar they brought out free snacks.

We’ve been in Barcelona for nearly 15 years now, and I work in a much more creative job. It’s been good for our marriage. We actually have time to talk to one another, which helps. If one of you is working all day and all night, you can’t really have a balanced partnership. I’m not sure our relationship would have survived if we had stayed in New York.

I rewatched Vicky Cristina Barcelona recently, and I stand by my original interpretation: it’s a bit naff. The shots of Barcelona are still gorgeous, though. It’s strange to have moved countries for a film you think is objectively bad, but I suppose it’s not just good art that is inspiring. Bad art can be life-changing, too.

‘People back in Melbourne think I’m insane for coming here’

Arya moved to rural Wales after watching Morgan’s Boy

I was living alone in Melbourne when the pandemic hit. The state of Victoria had a particularly brutal lockdown policy, so for two years all I did was walk manically around my block and scroll the internet. Then one day I stumbled across a grainy YouTube video of a 1984 BBC drama called Morgan’s Boy, about a depressed Welsh hill farmer. I was 26 at the time, so perhaps I shouldn’t have identified so intensely with a lonely 47-year-old. But I was reeled in by the shots of the Welsh landscape because it looked almost identical to rural New Zealand, where I was born. I missed my family, and the opening scene felt like a distorted image of my own childhood. I stayed up until 4am that night and watched all eight episodes in a row.

Morgan’s Boy is not a feel-good television show: things do not end well for the lonely hill farmer. But I found the storyline weirdly cathartic. I liked the realism of the characters. Small details, like the way the actor playing Morgan shovelled food on to his fork, or walked with his feet turned out, were like the mannerisms of the farmers I had grown up with. Hardly anyone has heard of Morgan’s Boy, and I felt sad about the love and detail that had gone into this thing that people just forgot about.

Related: ‘The UK today doesn’t feel like my country’: six Britons who moved to the EU reflect on expat life post-Brexit

I started looking up some of the landmarks I saw in the episodes and was thrilled to discover that they were real places. The pub really existed, and so did the cow field and the local markets and village shop. Whenever I felt particularly trapped in Melbourne, I would go on Google maps and walk routes from the show in my head. I wanted to live somewhere that was like New Zealand, but I still craved independence and adventure. I made a vow to myself that if the lockdown ever actually ended, I would go back and see my family, then I would move to rural Wales.

I arrived in the Black Mountains in July 2022 and moved into a cottage a few miles away from where Morgan’s Boy had been filmed. The afternoon I unpacked my stuff, I felt pure elation. I went out on to the hills and it was deserted but I didn’t feel isolated in the way that I had in Melbourne, because I had total autonomy. I felt as if I was in a scene from the show, but a happy one – admittedly those are few and far between.

Most of the people I socialise with here are in their 70s, but I honestly feel as if I’ve never had more friends. I’ve been here more than a year now and I’ve averaged two dinner invitations a week. I am also shocked by the sheer number of fetes and fairs on the weekends. In Melbourne, before the pandemic, I had a demanding job and I often felt as if I was ignoring great swathes of my life because I only mentally switched into “fun” mode on a day off. But I’ve never truly liked going out partying, so I’m better suited to my new, slow-paced life. I have not fully morphed into a hill farmer, but I have recently started growing my own carrots.

People back in Melbourne think I’m insane for moving here. Even my 70-year-old Welsh friends keep asking me why I don’t want to go to a big city, and find romance. But I’ve had relationships in the past, and I’m enjoying the freedom of not having to consider another person’s needs all the time. If that changes, there are plenty of eligible contenders at the village fete.

Arya’s name has been changed.

‘My wife was just relieved I hadn’t seen a film about a nomad in the desert’

The Last Samurai sent Scott to Japan

I moved to Japan in 2020, inspired by my love of The Last Samurai. The film follows Tom Cruise, as a 19th-century US soldier, as he trains to become a Japanese warrior. I work in marketing, but would much rather be a samurai. I am fascinated by the honour code and the way warriors dedicate their lives to performing even the lowliest tasks to perfection. There are scenes in the film where Tom Cruise sits on a hill, in absolute tranquillity, surrounded by beauty. In my fantasies I am sitting on a hill like that, in a Cruise-like pose, in an ancient world.

I started repeat-watching The Last Samurai in my early 30s, when I was living in Shanghai. The work culture there is cut-throat and I had stress ulcers and frequent headaches. The life of a 19th-century samurai had never looked so appealing. One line from the script kept popping into my head while I was at my desk, a constant earworm. In the final scene, Tom Cruise walks through an idyllic green field and the narrator tells us he has “at last found some small measure of peace, that we all seek, and few of us ever find”. I was aware this was a Hollywood script, but I honestly started thinking about that line as my salvation. “Peace” seemed to encapsulate everything my life was lacking. I started floating the idea to my wife that we should move to Japan.

My wife is Chinese, whereas I was already an expat. She was not that enthusiastic at the prospect of leaving her home country for the sake of The Last Samurai, but could see the practical benefits of the move: she had respiratory issues, because of the air pollution in Shanghai, and she was concerned about how burnt out I was. My wife is also accustomed to the outsize influence films have on my life. I often buy furniture and accessories to match ones I see on screen. Every time we have a whisky I make us drink it out of my special Blade Runner glassware. I think she was just relieved that I hadn’t seen a film about a nomad in the desert and decided to move there.

We arrived in Kyoto four months before Covid hit, so all the most beautiful temples were deserted. I only had to walk into a teahouse or explore a sidestreet to feel as if I was stepping through a vortex and into the world of the film. The Japanese have an expression to describe this, taimu surippu, which translates to time-slip. Of course, I’m not magically free from the stresses of modern life: I still work, and I have young children. But I do think I have attained some measure of peace, since the move. Even now the tourists have come back, it’s surprisingly easy to forget what century you are in.

Sometimes I take my adventures in time-slippage to another level. Recently I took part in a samurai dress-up day, where you put on Tom Cruise-style flowing robes. They gave me a prop sword and showed me a few moves. My kids enjoyed dressing up with me, but I seemed to be the most enthusiastic participant. Dress-up events are quite common in Kyoto. There are festivals where hundreds of adults parade the streets in period costume, so I feel as if I’ve found my spiritual home.