Family Honor Cements What’s Love Got To Do With It

Image courtesy of Shout! Studios

Because the lead is an aspiring documentary filmmaker chronicling the unique familial experiences of marriage, What’s Love Got to Do With It? from Shout! Studios is structured to include the creation and presentation of video testimonials. With a sprinkle of homage to When Harry Met Sally…, various couples offer their discourse and nostalgic stories on how their unions came to be and how they have turned out since. They are lovely moments that count as world-building for a romantic comedy, but watch them closely. There’s more. 

These little recorded asides offer large glimpses into the clashing attitudes at play in What’s Love Got to Do With It? Watch the body language in those scenes. You have actors breaking the fourth wall to portray characters feigning different levels of either open or guarded commitment and confidence in their marital origins and status. With a sharp eye cutting through the natural giggles and flubs of being on camera, one can see which couples and individuals are wholly in their dream situation and those that look away picturing something missing or remembering someone else.

A groom smiles and stands next to his friend
Image courtesy of Shout! Studios

Why a clashing of attitudes and cloud of doubt do you ask? Well, the air of enigma in What’s Love Got to Do With It? comes down to the rub of newfangled arranged marriages within the contemporary British Muslim community being at the forefront of its story. In his first film in 15 years, iconoclast director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) sheds his penchant for sweeping historical epics for very frank and pertinent domestic sensibilities.

Right off the bat, What’s Love Got to Do With It? brings up the current culture of arranged marriages and how they stand in the 21st century. Hoping to shed some of their archaic stigma while still strengthening the emphasis on extended family, they are more aptly called “assisted” marriages now, where the sons or daughters involved are given a little more leeway and a wide range selection services and courting events. Call them primeval, but statistics show that the divorce rate in arranged/assisted marriages is in the single digits compared to the 40-50% rate range of other marriages. Maybe they’ve always been onto something all this time.

A man sits in front of his laptop camera backed by his extended family.
Image courtesy of Shout! Studios

Our main characters in What’s Love Got to Do With It? are going to find out. Kaz Khan (Shazad Latif of Star Trek: Discovery) and Zoe Stevenson (Cinderella’s Lily James) have been lifelong neighbors and platonic best friends with an open door for each other’s different backgrounds and lifestyles. Zoe is the struggling wannabe filmmaker stuck in a parade of poor relationship choices. Kaz is a successful doctor born in London to a large Pakistani immigrant family. He’s been a perpetual bachelor with his own secretive religious sins of alcohol and smoking. 

Not wanting any more dead-ends trysts of his own, Kaz decides to follow his younger sister Yasmin (Iman Boujelouah) and embark on the course of assisted marriage. The first step of his parents Zahid and Aisha (Jeff Mirza and Shabana Azmi) and grandmother Nani (Pakiza Baig) is hiring “Mo the Matchmaker” (Chabuddy G TV personality Asim Chaudhry). In rapid-fire fashion, the elders are dumping their own qualifications over their son’s to Mo, measuring everything from religious concentration to sexual tendencies, kicking off the whirlwind process.

A woman sits in front of a laptop backed by her extended family.
Image courtesy of Shout! Studios

Kaz and Zoe are semi-failed products of a modern era where there are swiping apps for dates and an entire ecosystem for dating. By contrast, Kaz’s parents met the day they were married and have lasted for decades. Many analogies are bandied about in What’s Love Got to Do With It? about challenging how fast love can manifest between two people. Lines like “I need a companion, not a click,” “better to simmer than to boil,” and “fall into ‘like’ and work into ‘love’” cement the necessary commitment.

Following the matter closely, Zoe convinces Kaz to allow her to document the entire experience as an invisible observer for a “Love Contractually”-pitched film project for her caddish bosses. Alas, if you’re Lily James, you are most certainly not invisible, putting Zoe and her feelings too close to this whole endeavor. In true rom-com fashion, What’s Love Got to Do With It? does not shroud the two people we know should be together. 

While Lily James is her tried-and-true plucky and pretty self, the heaviest gestures of the heart belong to Shazad Latif. Through a seesaw of liberated modern sensibilities bouncing against traditional expectations, Latif plays a very conflicted Kaz who could easily go either way once his lovely prescribed bride Maymouna (TV starlet Sajal Ali) arrives into the picture.

A mother in ceremonial dress smiles next her daughter in What's Love Got to Do With It?
Image courtesy of Shout! Studios

If What’s Love Got to Do With It? was a straight comedy, this would all be a gauntlet of hijinks to get our destined besties together. There would also be two or more comic relief pot-stirrers initiating many of the pitfalls. The closest this film gets to that is Emma Thompson’s wonderful presence as Zoe’s culturally-fluid mother Cath and the studly veterinarian suitor James (Oliver Chris of Trying and Motherland) she nudges her daughter towards. Emma is in the movie just enough not to be an oxygen-stealing distraction. Things are played refreshingly straight. 

No matter the ethnic backgrounds of the people or the speed of the proceedings, the one universal truth, accelerant, and sealer is always direct conversation. In classic rom-com fashion, characters longing for their freedom, their desired partners, or their best selves cannot seem to speak up when necessary. Opportunities are squandered and conclusions are rushed when people clam up and pretend to go with the flow rather than speak their mind and assert themselves. For goodness’ sake, tell them! Naturally, when the key people of What’s Love Got to Do With It? who need to speak their peace, the risks are greater or the timing is wrong.

When the larger societal issues of Britain’s social politics towards PoC creep in, the hurdles, so to speak, get even higher. To Shekhar Kapur’s great credit and shared with producer and debuting screenwriter Jemimia Khan, those inclusions are honest more than heavy-handed. More than anything, What’s Love Got to Do With It puts a strong emphasis on family honor and its aforementioned different speed of romantic finality. Those nuclei become natural and not forced on a journey where the wallop and flourish surprisingly arrive in two different places.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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