Sunday, February 14, 2010

For Valentine's Day: three great romantic films

If there is one thing contemporary cinema needs delivering from, it's bad romance. I cannot remember the last time I saw a romantic "comedy" that didn't smell highly of contrivance and feature such unlovely characters that audiences might well root for them NOT to get together, for the gene pool's sake. (Examples: "Bride Wars," "He's Just Not That Into You," "Mamma Mia.") We can't hope for much better from romantic dramas as long as the most wildly popular of that genre is the inane "Twilight" series, featuring a heroine so pathetic that even Charles Dickens' passive wallflower heroines could give her a lesson or two in gumption. Even critically acclaimed romances can disappoint. "Big Fish," "Atonement," and "Slumdog Millionaire" were all touted as highly romantic, yet for all their other merits, they all shared the same flaw: a woefully underdeveloped heroine. Despite being played by high-caliber actress Jessica Lange, the female lead in "Big Fish" remains nothing more than a shadow. The only thing we learn about Keira Knightley's character in "Atonement" is that she looks good in a green dress. And the heroine for whom the hero does everything in "Slumdog" is merely a gorgeous waxwork. It's hard to root for a romance when we can't see why the heroine is worth all the trouble.

I love a good romantic film, drama or comedy, but my standards are high: 1) we must get to know and take an interest in both the lovers concerned, and 2) we must get the sense that something vital is at stake (a tricky feat to manage in a pop culture where the attitude toward romance tends to be blase' and casual). Most of the films that meet these crucial criteria tend to come from the Classic (pre-1970) Era, but as you will see, it's not unheard of for a recent film to make the grade. If you're seeking a genuinely romantic film, here are three with which you can't lose:

1. "The African Queen" (1951). Gruff, earthy Humphrey Bogart and prim, hyper-sophisticated Katharine Hepburn: a clear-cut case of Opposites Attract, right? If that were all there was to it, this story, set during World War I, of an alcoholic riverboat captain and a strait-laced missionary would never have attained Classic status. What makes this love story work is that as the captain ferries the missionary down a supposedly un-navigable river and lets her talk him into making a torpedo and aiming it at a German gun-boat is that as they share their adventure, we see how very much alike they are under the surface. The more they endure, the more they admire and respect each other (two characteristics all too often lacking in today's "romantic" films). Experience molds them into genuine soul mates; each is a better person for knowing and loving the other. Hepburn and Bogart convey crackling romantic electricity each time they touch and look at each other. The good news: after being withheld from a demanding public, this fine film is finally getting a proper DVD release this March.

2. "That Hamilton Woman" (1941). This historical drama of the star-crossed love between Lord Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton was a favorite of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and it's easy to see why. With its period setting, its "England Forever" propaganda seems far less jarring and intrusive, yet the message gets across. But it makes my list because Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, as Nelson and Emma, were very much in love in real life when they made this film, and their passion comes through in every frame. (Also, they're both gorgeous.) The screenplay, by acclaimed playwright R.C. Sheriff, takes the time and trouble to develop both characters and make us care about them; through her love, Emma matures from a shallow flibbertigibbet to a warm and intelligent woman. Helping matters further is a lush musical score by one of the finest film-score composers of the Classic Era, Miklos Rosza.

3. "WALL-E" (2008). Yes, the most moving romantic comedy-drama of the past two years features two robots as its protagonists. Don't laugh: Pixar's classic draws the viewer in from the very first shot. (I don't even like "Hello, Dolly!" yet somehow that song soaring over the dust cloud gets to me every time.) As other critics have pointed out, WALL-E is a robotic version of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, with all the humor, sweetness and poignance that implies. His love at first sight for the hot-tempered and aggressive EVE is heart-melting. But like the other two films, this one takes the time to develop the relationship, as the two learn about, and from, each other. The scene in which EVE discovers how WALL-E took care of her while she was unconscious can bring mist to the eyes. We can find more tenderness in their hand-holding than in many a live-action couple's lip-lock.

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