It’s a classic romantic comedy set-up: after years apart, exes catch a glimpse of each other through a doorway. The catch? One of them runs a boutique hotel in the countryside, and the other is an unsuspecting guest. But in writer/director Jamie Adams’ She Is Love, there’s nothing cute about this awkward meeting, and the film, which I’ve seen alternatively labeled as a romantic comedy and as a romantic drama, is never amusing enough to garner any laughs, nor does it reach the emotional heights necessary to serve as a compelling dissection of a failed relationship.
Haley Bennett plays Patricia, who travels for a job she loosely defines later in the film as scouting out writing talent for television. After a meeting falls through, her work sets her up in a hotel in Cornwall. She’s immediately fussy; she has to wait outside for the attendant to come let her in, haul her luggage up the narrow stairs, and moans about how ugly the room is. When she ventures downstairs to find the source of some loud music that night, she finds Idris (Sam Riley), her musician ex-husband who she hasn’t seen for 10 years. The meeting is awkward, to say the least; it turns out that Idris runs the hotel with his aspiring actress girlfriend Louise (Marisa Abela). After some clumsily exchanged pleasantries that make it clear that Louise isn’t very comfortable with the whole situation, Louise ventures off to leave Patricia and Idris to catch up. Their initially leery conversation that unfolds over the course of one evening—with the help of a whiskey bottle—soon settles into comfortable reflections on the past alternating with emotional confrontations about what went wrong with their marriage, ripping open still-festering old wounds.
Adams has utilized a loose improvisational style on some of his previous films, but while the handheld camera livens up some shots that are otherwise static scenes of people talking, it ends up having the opposite of a free-flowing effect on the actors. Conversations and overlapping dialogue that should ground the narrative in some realism instead come off as stilted and unconvincing. I know it’s not entirely the performers’ faults—Riley has proved himself before, and Bennett particularly has in a wide range of roles from the bright heroine of the romantic musical Cyrano to the smothered housewife in Swallow. She does get to sing a little bit here; some of the film’s more palatable moments include Patricia and Idris improvising a song about how they’re never getting married again while she dances and he strums his guitar. Bennett has one of those faces that looks like she could cry when she’s smiling and be happy while on the verge of tears, and her expressions work especially well in this situation where her character is having to face a sudden onslaught of feelings. But what script there is just isn’t up to par. Even when Patricia and Idris are running around acting goofy and having fun—at one point they smother white make-up on themselves and pretend to be ghosts—believable chemistry is rarely conjured between them, making it even more difficult to become invested in their rummaging around in their past while determining what to make of their future. It doesn’t help that early in the film, the movie frequently cuts away to Louise relentlessly rehearsing a script for an audition to her harried assistant Kate (Rosa Robson). These scenes are clearly intended to be comic asides, but the stiff attempts at humor don’t land, and eventually, Louise just sort of disappears from the film altogether.
Despite a quick 80 minute runtime, She Is Love feels almost insufferably long, the leads spending so much time circling each other that by the time the big revelation that prompted their split is revealed, it’s difficult to care. Perhaps as a short film, She Is Love could have packed a harder punch with the benefit of a more concise runtime. But as it stands, genuinely felt moments in She Is Love are few and far between, with little satisfying moments of catharsis or romance to be found.
She Is Love is now playing in select theaters in the UK and is available to watch on demand everywhere. Runtime: 82 minutes.