What’s Love Got to Do With It? movie review: an ambitious but flawed rom-com

 (Robert Viglasky)
(Robert Viglasky)

This ambitious and occasionally moving rom-com is written by Jemima Khan and it revolves around a London-born singleton, played by Lily James, who thinks happy-ever-after stories are for saps. Zoe’s mum, Cath (Emma Thompson), is always trying to set Zoe up with suitable men. In one of the film’s sweetest moments, a stricken Zoe asks, “Am I not enough for you when I’m on my own?”

Good question. This genre exists because so many people are permanently in the mood to see the gorgeous fall in love. Khan’s project wants to satisfy that urge, but also explore more dangerous territory: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy surrounding the ’white gaze’.

Sporadically bitter divorcee, Cath, lives next door to happily-married Pakistani couple, Aisha and Zahid Khan (Shabana Azmi and Jeff Mirza), whose kids, Kaz (Shazad Latif) and Jamila (Mariam Haque) have always been besties with Zoe.

Zoe wants to make a documentary about Kaz’s decision to have an assisted marriage (like an arranged one, but more chilled), with a “good Muslim girl”, the much-younger, Lahore-based Maymouna, (Sajal Aly). When Kaz and his family fly to Pakistan for the wedding, Zoe and her camera (and Cath) come along for the ride.

Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi (Robert Viglasky)
Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi (Robert Viglasky)

This is a Working Title film and, surprise surprise, economic realities are few and far between. In this neck of the woods, NHS doctors have time on their hands and film-makers don’t worry about deadlines or bills. We’re getting a postcard from London. Wish I was there.

It’s when the action moves to Lahore, (where the writer lived for a decade, while she was married to Imran Khan), that the jolting details creep in. Zoe and Kaz learn that Princess Diana (a good friend of Khan’s) once wanted to marry a Muslim doctor. During a clothes fitting, the pair find out who kyboshed that match. As for Maymouna, she’s not as wide-eyed as she looks and the verbal swipes she takes at Kaz’s conservative granny, and Kaz himself, are plausibly salty. Aly’s a real find, by the way. Like Azmi, she conveys so much via body language.

Director Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen, Elizabeth) ensures everything looks lush and inviting. Latif had a small role in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and audiences who liked that will almost certainly like this. It’s edgier than John Madden’s comedy, if not quite edgy enough.

The sexual heat it provides, though, wouldn’t boil an egg. And, this isn’t Thompson’s finest hour. The ever-radiant icon can’t get to grips with a role that rarely rings true. Cath should be far more nutty (she has the potential to be absolutely fabulous). Nevermind, this is an impressive feature debut from Khan.

In cinemas