Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's review of this charming independent film is a rallying cry to romantics everywhere: See this movie! (Of course, her actual review uses more words.)
Geography is destiny.
Based on the novel by the late Canadian author Carol Shields, The Republic of Love is a quietly enchanting film about love and lovers. Romantics of the world, take note: This is a film that you should not miss. Charming without being cloying, timeless yet rooted in modern life, unexpectedly funny and heartwrenching by turns, this is an absolute gem of a movie.
Facts of the Case
Fay (Emilia Fox, The Pianist) is a thirty-year-old Toronto woman with a job she loves, a family she loves, and a boyfriend she…spends time with. Perhaps because her parents' marriage is so perfect, so replete with love even after all their years together, she isn't very quick to make a commitment herself. In contrast, Tom (Bruce Greenwood, I, Robot) has an addiction to love. He's got a lot of baggage even by the standards of this era of baggage, and he even hosts a late-night radio show in which he invites people to pour out their romantic troubles to him. His own love life seems to be dogged with bad luck, while Fay's seems never to quite warm up to room temperature. Yet when these two meet, the knowledge is instantaneous: They are meant for each other.
But then Fay's world is rocked by an unforeseen blow, and nothing, least of all love, is certain any longer.
I was unfamiliar with Carol Shields's novel when I discovered The Republic of Love, so I brought few expectations to it. About the only thing I did expect was quality performances, since I was familiar with Emilia Fox and her father, Edward Fox (Daniel Deronda, The Dresser), who actually plays Fay's father here. In anticipating strong acting I was certainly right on the mark, but never did I expect to be so won over by this movie. I readily admit that I'm a romantic, so in part I was drawn into this story because of its old-fashioned, simple story of love at first sight and the obstacles two likeable people have to overcome to be together. But director Deepa Mehta (Bollywood/Hollywood) has molded this material with a delicate touch; it isn't the big, shiny, busy spectacle that so many Hollywood romances are, but rather a quiet, often quirky, even bittersweet movie that draws us in because of its genuineness rather than its shop-window prettiness.
That's not to say that the film isn't attractive to look at. On the contrary, the cinematography is exquisite, creating a modern cityscape that is both elegant and lonely; different color palettes help to establish mood, so that the bleak, cold light of many initial scenes suddenly warms and brightens when Tom first sets eyes on Fay. And the actors are certainly attractive, between Emilia Fox's wistful fairytale-princess prettiness and Greenwood's weathered, crinkle-eyed good looks. But somehow these characters still feel like real people, not stars who have just stepped out of a makeup chair, and the chilly sophistication of the urban setting is very familiar. Likewise, the obstacles that Fay and Tom face are their own pasts and emotional patterns, not external plot contrivances, so that this feels like a story that could be happening to people we know in real life.
Because of this low-key, even self-effacing quality, the film's humor came as a particular delight. The screenplay, cowritten by Mehta and Esta Spalding, is smart and lively without sounding fake, and there are also bigger, bolder comic sequences that liven up the story, like the stylized opening flashback and a scene in which Tom takes a woman from his singles group home and discovers that she is rife with sexual hangups. Yet the moments in which the story grows darker and more poignant also ring true. Mehta skillfully balances the different elements so that none of them jar or seem out of place, yet there is room for the unexpected—and even, sometimes, the absurd. Mehta's delicate touch, together with the naturalness of the performances, also pulls off what is little short of a miracle: a movie that is heartfelt without becoming sentimental or coy, and that avoids cliché, even where it is presenting situations that aren't new. In one of the enjoyable conventions that other love stories have employed, we know that Tom and Fay are fated to meet (and, of course, fall in love) because their lives overlap in so many places: They know many of the same people, they live so close together it's staggering, and they come close to crossing paths on more than one occasion. Yet this situation is handled with matter-of-factness, not self-aware cuteness. All of us have experienced that feeling of living in a very small world in the middle of a big universe, and Republic uses that initial idea to bring up themes of destiny and belonging that will resonate throughout the film.
In her notes on the case insert, Mehta describes her approach to Shields's "deceptively simple story line" as that of a cook trying to create a dish that is "fragrant, spicy, light to the palate and yet substantial and filling." I don't think I can describe the film any better than this. The story is, indeed, a simple one; even the subplots mirror the main story in tracing the development of love. But Mehta approaches the material unapologetically, with visible affection and appreciation, and the result is deeply satisfying. It's actually a brave tactic; again, I can't help but think what Hollywood would do with this material-adding a Cute Montage set to some peppy '50s rock 'n' roll standard, a chase sequence, a bright, saccharine musical score, and a big finale with hundreds of extras. None of that is in evidence here, and the movie doesn't need it.
I mentioned the strong performances, and indeed they are worth noting. Edward Fox brings great presence and complexity to his role, and seeing the real-life father and daughter interacting as screen father and daughter adds poignancy to their scenes and enhances the sense of the characters' comfort with and affection for each other. As Fay's mother, Martha Henry likewise creates a lovely sense of intimacy with her screen daughter, and she turns in a subtle, gently nuanced performance. Lloyd Owen, whom many will remember as having been (with Emilia Fox) a regular guest on season three of the British comedy Coupling, is appropriately smooth and self-satisfied as Fay's boyfriend; the word that keeps coming to mind with all these performances is subtlety, since all of these characters are presented so naturally and without exaggeration that they are completely believable. Flashier but great fun are Tom's colorful mother and, in a small but memorable role, the French hotel clerk who enters Fay's life at a pivotal time.
Of course, the supporting cast would be working in a void without strong leads, and Fox and Greenwood are simply perfect as the main characters. Both come across as being likeable without making an effort to ingratiate themselves; we feel for them in their loneliness and yearn to see them happily together. The two have an unforced chemistry together and capture that one-of-a-kind experience of falling in love: the giddiness, the silliness, the randiness, the fear, and the amazement. There is a naturalness to their performances and to their relation to each other onscreen that really makes this love story work. Somehow I've missed seeing Greenwood in his other films (which are numerous), and although part of me wants to run out and start renting them since I was so impressed by his performance here, another part of me doesn't want to destroy the illusion that he is Tom. Because of the sometimes stylized visual quality of the film, which even includes some fleeting moments of fantasy, the believability of the characters is crucial, and I never found the cast less than convincing.
This is my first exposure to Film Movement, a company that releases independent films on DVD while they are still in theatrical release, operating as a kind of independent-movie-of-the-month club. Overall my first experience with their product has been an excellent one. Audio quality is very strong, and the widescreen picture is likewise clear and sharp, with very little noise (noticeable mostly in the end credits). The packaging and menus of The Republic of Love are attractive and classy, and I like the fact that Film Movement makes a point of including extras: Here, these consist of bios of Mehta, Shields, Emilia Fox, and Greenwood; production notes by Mehta on the case insert; and, best of all, an entire short film (evidently a feature on each Film Movement release). Persistence is a ten-minute film that tells the simple story of an elderly man's attempts to escape from a nursing home to complete a self-appointed mission. With minimal dialogue and a nicely understated use of both humor and pathos, this short film boasts exquisitely professional quality in cinematography, editing, and scoring. About the only thing I have to complain of in the packaging here is the fact that the menu is flawed: Selecting the option "Play The Republic of Love" actually plays a brief self-advertising segment only. To get the film itself to play I had to go to the scene selection menu. Apart from this little goof, and the fact that the disc automatically begins to play trailers for other movies before presenting the main menu—an annoyance perpetrated by an increasing number of studios—I'm impressed with Film Movement's product. Although their DVD releases appear to be available only through the company itself, and not through other retailers such as Amazon, I urge romantics and independent film lovers to seek out The Republic of Love even if it means a few more mouse clicks than you're accustomed to.
Moviegoers jaded by the predictability and relentless feel-good bombast of big-budget romantic comedies will find The Republic of Love refreshing. It will do more than restore your faith in love: It will restore your faith in movies.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Film Movement
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