It is a simple, incontrovertible fact that few things make love burn brighter than being told it’s not allowed – Shakespeare had this figured out centuries ago when he wrote ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and forbidden love has been a mainstay of the silver screen since the earliest silent stars gazed lovingly at one another only to be torn apart by whichever nefarious means. Of course, it’s not just warring families or pre-existing betrothals that get in the way of love’s young dream, as A United Kingdom, this month’s achingly beautiful arrival on the BFI Player shows.
Race, religion, sexuality, age, politics – all of them have derailed many a cinematic romance in a variety of heartbreaking ways and to mark Amma Asante’s triumph debuting on the BFI Player on March 20th, we thought we’d remind you of some of the best forbidden romances you can follow it up with. Tissues at the ready…
A United Kingdom (2016)
A United Kingdom is the tale of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the London office worker he married in 1948 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the government of the time. Ignoring the opposition of friends and family, they plunge into a whirlwind romance that leads rapidly to marriage and political responsibility. Director Amma Asante follows her previous film Belle with another elegant, impassioned drama that also reveals a painful episode in the history of British race relations and imperial politics.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Kazuo Ishiguro’s breathtaking sci-fi romance novel was gracefully adapted to the screen in 2010 with the screenwriting help of Alex Garland and the brilliantly reticent performances of Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley. They play Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, respectively, who live in a world and a time that feel familiar to us, but they are not quite like anything we know. When they leave the idyllic Hailsham boarding school to join the real world, they are slowly let in on the secret that has been shrouding their existence – they are clones that are bred and harvested for organs in their 20s. Tommy and Kathy’s love for each other is thwarted at every turn: by bullies at school, the jealous Ruth in their teenage years and ultimately by their existence as clones. By the time Tommy and Kathy are together, Tommy has been harvested four times and is near ‘completion’. In a last ditch effort to avoid their inevitable fate, Tommy and Kathy catch on to a rumour that if they prove to their old head teacher that they are in love they will be given a ‘deferral’ on their ‘completion’. However, this ‘deferral’ process is just another untruth in a long string of lies they have been told since childhood about who and what they are…
Bright Star (2009)
New Zealand director Jane Campion brings her own poetic sensibility to the brief, desperate romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbour Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). The relationship between Keats and Brawne began in 1819, two years before the poet’s death from tuberculosis. One of the achievements of Jane Campion’s picture is to render this romance with an urgency not typically associated with either costume drama nor films about poetry. The love story isn’t used to explain what Keats wrote in that period. Instead Campion is interested in the point where life and art become indivisible, and her stylistic choices are modelled on this idea. Sound and song spill over from one lovingly detailed scene to the next, while Greig Fraser’s fluid cinematography takes its cue from Keats, who clambers high above the forest floor, or reflects on a dream in which he is floating above the treetops.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Set against the sweeping landscapes of Wyoming and Texas, Ang Lee’s epic love story tells of two young men, Ennis (Heath Ledger) a ranch-hand and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) a rodeo cowboy, who meet in the summer of 1963 while driving cattle on a mountain range. The two men unexpectedly forge a passionate, sexual and emotional connection and begin a secretive and forbidden relationship. Both men endure loveless marriages and their own relationship becomes a struggle due to the fear of being discovered and the violent consequences they would face given the period’s attitude to homosexuality.
Shakespeare In Love (1998)
This seven-time Oscar winning romance was Joseph Fiennes’ big screen breakthrough as a leading man, but it is Gwenyth Paltrow who steals the show as the androgynous Viola de Lesseps/Thomas Kent. When William Shakespeare (Fiennes) has a severe case of writer’s block, it is Viola, an upper class woman engaged and doomed to a loveless marriage with Lord Wessex (Collin Firth), who revives him from his slump and inspires his best work. Shakespeare, separated from his wife but still married, falls for Viola and the pair engages in an illicit romantic affair. Viola performs in Shakespeare’s plays, disguised as ‘Thomas Kent’, expertly playing Romeo of Romeo and Juliet to win the approval of Queen Elizabeth I and also £50 for Shakespeare, who had wagered with Wessex that his play could portray the true nature of love. And yet Viola must set sail to Virginia with Wessex. Thus, Shakespeare vows to immortalise her, imagining her as a castaway disguised as a man after a voyage to a strange land – The Twelfth Night…
Romeo and Juliet (1996)
A cornerstone of all forbidden love stories, Shakespeare’s infamous tragedy has been adapted to film on multiple occasions, but none better than Baz Lurhman’s 1996 effort in which the love story is played out on the hip modern streets of Verona, yet retaining the original dialogue. Leo burst onto the scenes as Hollywood’s new leading man in this film for his heartbreaking performance as Romeo Montague, one half of the star crossed lovers, who falls for Juliet Capulet (Claire Dines) in spite of their families’ long-standing feud. Romeo and Juliet defy their families’ disgust for each other and chose love; but it is a doomed love that ends in tragedy…
Before Sunrise (1995)
The first instalment of Richard Linklater’s career-long exploration of romance and relationships in the Before Trilogy sees the beginnings of a doomed relationship between young twentysomethings American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Céline (Julie Delpy). They meet on a train in Europe, and spontaneously disembark at Vienna, where they spend the night walking around the city and getting to know each other. Linklater keeps the plot minimalistic but the dialogue hugely dense. As the night wears on, Jesse and Céline’s limited time together is always on their minds, and leads to their revealing more about themselves than they normally. Inevitably, they fall further and further in love but must conclude that this will be their only night together and they will never see each other again…
A United Kingdom is available to watch on BFI Player from Monday 20th March. Rent it here