For some, Valentine’s Day is one red-letter occasion that won’t be significantly spoiled by a global pandemic and attendant lockdown: skipping the impossible-to-book dinner date and settling for a cosy couple’s night in isn’t too much of a sacrifice. For those who don’t live with the one they love, however, it further emphasises this pained, indefinite period of isolation and separation. For them, it will be a Valentine’s Day of FaceTime intimacy, romantic meals eaten over Zoom, perhaps a favourite film simulwatched across the miles.
Cinema, at least, is sympathetic to such circumstances. History is stacked with screen romances in which the drama hinges on keeping people apart rather than together. In Sleepless in Seattle (1993; Now TV), of course, Nora Ephron pulled off the trick of not having her destiny-driven, cities-apart lovers properly meet until the final scene, essentially counting on the uncombined charms of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks to woo viewers into rooting for their union. Ephron’s film paid devoted tribute to Leo McCarey’s glossy, high-glam 1957 melodrama An Affair to Remember (Microsoft) – itself a remake of McCarey’s better, airier Love Affair (1939; Amazon Prime), which found the weepiest of reasons to separate Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr for more than a year after their swoony first connection.
Whirlwind cruise-ship flings and promised Empire State Building rendezvous are all well and good, but most will find that Nanette Burstein’s underrated 2010 film Going the Distance (Amazon) takes a more relatable approach to romantic disruption. Among the best mainstream romcoms to address long-distance dating, it paints a surprisingly credible picture of the cultural and professional expectations that pull a young relationship between San Francisco-based Drew Barrymore and New York-based Justin Long this way and that. Burstein’s background in documentary-making probably helps, even if the cheerfully raunchy script spares us the lowest lows of the situation.
Not long after Burstein’s film, Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy (2011; Google Play) took on a transatlantic long-distance romance, with the added drama of visa complications, between Felicity Jones and the late, missed Anton Yelchin. Much praised and laden with Sundance prizes at the time, it has rather slipped from popular memory, but its starry-eyed melancholy feels right for this moment.
A film that has cultivated a doting fanbase, however, is The Lunchbox (2013; Curzon Home Cinema), Ritesh Batra’s sweetly sorrowful epistolary romance between a lonely Mumbai housewife and a widower, accidentally connected by the city’s dabbawalas lunch delivery system. Its blend of old-as-the-hills movie contrivance and mellow, everyday realism (plus a generous helping of outright food porn) plays beautifully, and features one of the late Irrfan Khan’s defining performances.
As letter-writing romances go, it’s significantly less complicated than the wildly daft but fully irresistible fantasy The Lake House (2006; Netflix), in which Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock aren’t kept apart by distance but time itself, with only a magic postbox somehow bridging their separate dimensions. And none of their missives quite live up to the tragic poetry of the letter that provides the narration of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948; Internet Archive), Max Ophüls’s great, glorious daddy of all love-from-afar stories, in which Joan Fontaine’s all-consuming passion for playboy pianist Louis Jourdan isn’t so much star-crossed as buffeted by callous masculinity.
After all, it’s usually earthly human cruelty, rather than any cosmic intervention, that gets in the way of true love – and you couldn’t ask for a more sobering reminder of that than last year’s Time (Amazon Prime). Garrett Bradley’s soulful, shattering documentary follows a resilient African American couple divided for more than 20 years by the injustices and inequalities of America’s prison system. It’s not obvious Valentine’s Day viewing, admittedly, but it’ll leave a lonely heart fuller than many a sweeping screen romance.
Miranda July’s first film in a decade was a bit lost in the shuffle when it got a notional cinema release last autumn, but this curiously moving, bittersweet caper comedy deserves a belated discovery – not least for Gina Rodriguez’s wonderful performance as a sparkly Los Angelena assimilated into Evan Rachel Wood’s odd family of grifters.
The Secret Garden
Now out on DVD, for those who weren’t able to catch its Sky Cinema release last October, this David Heyman-produced redo of the old chestnut is lavishly produced as can be, awash with glistening effects that all but overshadow its fine young leads. Yet this embrace of fantasy rather misses the emotional point of its source story: it should be about self-healing, not magical escape.
Updating Jane Austen to the contemporary world isn’t a new idea, mainly because it’s often such an effective one, but this loose, innocuous transfer of (you guessed it) Persuasion to a New York realm of marketing and social is missing some teeth, relying too heavily on chipper leading lady Alicia Witt to see it through.
I confess I had never heard of Robert Lloyd, the Brummie frontman of post-punk band the Nightingales and the Prefects, and the subject of this eccentric, affectionate documentary written by comedian Stewart Lee. I’m not alone, however, which is sort of the point: the film ponders the legacy of a career spent under the radar.
The Parting Glass
Scarcely noticed on the festival circuit a couple of years ago, this dysfunctional family reunion drama is a pleasant surprise. The story (a tetchy gaggle of Irish-American adult siblings gather to mourn one of their own) may be familiar, but it’s a sensitive blueprint for some first-rate acting by Cynthia Nixon, Melissa Leo and others.