Londoner Zoe Stevenson (Lily James) is a romantically challenged documentary filmmaker who decides to turn her cameras on childhood friend and longtime next-door neighbor, Kazim “Kaz” Khan (Shazad Latif), and his culturally specific search for a wife. He’s a handsome, 32-year-old, British Pakistani doctor, a Muslim traditionalist who’s yielding to the practice of an arranged (a.k.a. assisted) marriage to find a love match. Or “whatever love means,” says the gentle Kaz, telegraphing his modest expectations on that front.
With the help of his devoted parents, Aisha (Shabana Azmi) and Zahid (Jeff Mirza), the dutiful Kaz eventually connects with Maymouna (Sajal Aly), a seemingly shy, decade-younger law student living in Lahore, Pakistan. After a brief series of Skype meet-ups, Kaz and Maymouna become engaged — despite a visible lack of chemistry or joy — and a wedding date is set.
Cue the trek from London to Lahore for Kaz, his parents, brother Farooq (Mim Shaikh) and recent bride Yasmin (Iman Boujelouah), and Kaz’s elderly grandma, Nani Jan (Pakiza Baig), for the three-day wedding extravaganza. Zoe and her dotty, irrepressible mother, Cath (Emma Thompson), are also on board for the festivities, which will be the centerpiece of Zoe’s documentary. It’s a gala celebration, but all may not be what it seems.
Once back in London, Zoe takes a page from Kaz’s playbook: She surrenders to her mother’s advice and begins to date a kindly and genial veterinarian, James (Oliver Chris). Also like Kaz, she ends up talking herself into a relationship with someone attractive and acceptable, even if her heart’s not entirely in it — if at all. At least she still has her film to finish.
As in the making of most documentaries, outcomes can’t always be planned. And after a rough-cut screening of Zoe’s movie for family and friends, this heartfelt tale takes a few sharp turns that make all involved question or reexamine their beliefs. It’s here that the film gains its heft and deepens in several satisfying ways, bringing out the best in the screenplay and the capable cast.
For Zoe, it’s a clearer realization of what’s been holding her back — in life and in love. Kaz, meanwhile, becomes more honest with himself and more emboldened with his old-school parents, whose reactions to his revelations during an Eid al-Fitr gathering (to mark the end of Ramadan) may surprise you — as they do Kaz.
That same night, Aisha and Zahid must also come to terms with their daughter, Jamila (Mariam Haque), who has been estranged from her disapproving family since marrying the non-Muslim David (Michael Marcus). This family reunion at the Khans, with Zoe and Cath also in attendance, helps wrap up the film on a touching and tender note.
As for what love has to do with it, the film ultimately makes a convincing case that, for the longevity of romance, “it’s better to simmer than to boil.” Or so says Kaz’s mother, whose own arranged union with Zahid was a slow-building success story. Still, the movie also successfully posits that you can’t always choose who you fall for and that there’s also nothing wrong with good old-fashioned attraction — physical and emotional — to launch a relationship. As rom-coms go, this one’s pretty sensible.
Director Shekhar Kapur (“Bandit Queen,” “Elizabeth”) deftly juggles his large cast and many group scenes, especially the vibrant, Lahore-set wedding activities. (Suburban London and a country manor in Suffolk, England, subbed for Pakistan; inserts used of actual Lahore exteriors were shot remotely by a satellite crew). Pacing is mostly swift and, overall, the vibe of this Working Title Films production feels enjoyably consistent with such hit rom-coms from the company as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually.”
James and Latif make an appealing, soulful twosome, infusing their nicely dimensional, well-modulated characters with low-key charm and credible longing. Azmi is also quite good as a loving, encouraging mother who just wants her children to be happy, but also understands the obstacles that entails. The always welcome Thompson works hard but never quite nails down a thin, oddly conceived role, though she does thankfully have a few more authentic moments toward the end of this superior entry in the love-game genre.
‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’
In English and Urdu with English subtitles
Rated: PG-13, for strong language including a sexual reference, some suggestive material and brief drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Starts May 5 in general release