What's Love Got To Do With It review: Emma Thompson steals romcom

Emma Thompson steals this comedy which doesn't have the courage of its convictions.

Zoe points at Kazim as they both laugh
(Image: © Studio Canal)

What to Watch Verdict

Despite lots of charm and color, the film doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.


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    Emma Thompson’s eccentric mum

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    Tries to balance cultural attitudes

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    Pleasantly engaging


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    Comedy doesn’t always hit the mark

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    Overly obvious ending

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    Sticks too closely to the rom-com tradition

Good news for anybody who’s been longing for a return to Richard Curtis Land. You know the place — where everybody lives a comfortable middle-class life in a spacious Victorian house, where problems never last too long, and where everybody finds “the one”. 

Curtis’s name may not be on What’s Love Got To Do With It, but his vision of England and, more specifically, the English rom-com, is built into the film’s foundations. Only this time, it’s gone cross-cultural. Documentary maker Zoe (Lily James) and doctor Kaz (Shazad Latif) have grown up together — their respective parents are still neighbors — and both dream of marriage and domestic bliss. However, their approach to finding a partner is very different. 

Zoe's all for the romantic convention of falling in love, while Kaz is decided to opt for the Pakistani tradition of an assisted marriage, one where his parents employ a matchmaker. He finds his bride and, while Zoe’s efforts stumble and falter, she decides to make a film on assisted marriage which places both Kaz and his family in the spotlight. The spectacular ceremony takes place in Lahore, the newlyweds seem happy together, and then it emerges that the bride came with a secret... 

Lily James as Zoe and Shazad Latif as Kazim

Kazim (Shazad Latif) and Zoe (Lily James) are a great pairing. (Image credit: Studio Canal)

Easily the most predictable of all cinematic genres, the rom-com usually makes it obvious from early on which couple will end up together, so the rest of the film is taken up with getting them across the finishing line. In the hands of director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and writer Jemima Khan, it’s patently obvious inside the first minute which couple belongs together! Obstacles range from the wedding, an eminently nice boyfriend, and a major falling out between the families, but there’s never any doubt that things will work out as we expect.

Cultural differences, especially when it comes to love and marriage, are at the heart of the narrative and Khan attempts to balance the two. Assisted marriages may not appear so romantic, but are based on fundamentals like values, religion, and mutual interests — or, as we’re repeatedly told, they’re about “walking into love and falling later.” The alternative is more spontaneous — and more exciting — but with the risk of the thrill fizzling out, leaving nothing but unhappiness in its wake. Neither is perfect, which makes it all the more disappointing that the film takes the easy way out, drawing a conclusion that isn’t just simplistic, but dangerously close to trite. Love can happen at any time and in any way; it all depends on the person. Who’d have thought it?

If the “rom” has its issues, then so does the “com”. Khan’s script struggles for consistent humor and, at times, resorts to cliches in an effort to raise those laughs. On the downside are the two clownish producers backing Zoe’s documentary. Seemingly rejects from a one-season-only sitcom, they’re dealt the roughest of hands — cringeworthy dialogue — and there’s little they can do about it. Asim Chaudhry has more success in the role of the matchmaker, one that could have been equally cliched, but which allows him to bring some twinkly humor and energy to the screen.

Inevitably, the majority of laughs come from Emma Thompson as Zoe’s mum. We’ve seen her in this role before — well-intentioned but tactless, eccentric, meddling yet with a heart as a big as a house — but it’s one that she’s made her own. She steals every scene she’s in, especially when it comes to her attempts at “Mum dancing” at the wedding. For all her faux pas, you can’t help but love her, which makes it all the more strange that, when the action shifts to Lahore, we see her leave with everybody and then disappear from the screen until the actual ceremony takes place. And we miss her.

Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi wearing saris

Aisha (Shabana Azmi) and Cath (Emma Thompson) are particular highlights. (Image credit: Studio Canal)

In a film with very little in the way of surprises, Khan has managed to find one that both obeys the rom-com convention, but gives it a slight twist. We’re supposed to cry, aren’t we? And we do but in a very unexpected way. It’s the culmination of one of the many sub-plots — not a romantic one as such — and will have everybody reaching for their tissues.

The easy chemistry between James and Latif gives the film much of its charm. They make an attractive couple—making the outcome all the more obvious from the start— so, despite some sketchily drawn characters, the audience is still happily engaged. A special mention, too, for Shabana Azmi as Kaz’s mother, struggling with both balancing and embracing modernity and tradition.

Ultimately, the answer to the film’s title question is crystal clear. Yes, of course, love has plenty to do with it. Did you expect anything else? 

What’s Love Got To Do With It is released in UK cinemas on 24 February.

Freda Cooper

Freda can't remember a time when she didn't love films, so it's no surprise that her natural habitat is a darkened room in front of a big screen. She started writing about all things movies about eight years ago and, as well as being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic, is a regular voice on local radio on her favorite subject. 

While she finds time to watch TV as well — her tastes range from Bake Off to Ozark — films always come first. Favourite film? The Third Man. Top ten? That's a big and complicated question .....!