Streaming: the best holiday romance films – The Guardian

Netflix’s featherweight A Tourist’s Guide to Love follows a familiar arc, but there’s more to fall for in classics from Summertime to The Green Ray
There’s nothing new under the sun in A Tourist’s Guide to Love – though there’s an awful lot of that sun, brightening every postcard shot in this featherweight Netflix romcom, and for viewers starved of warmth after a long, dreary winter, that’s enough of a lure. It follows a familiar arc: reeling from a breakup, a perky travel executive (Rachael Leigh Cook) takes a trip to Vietnam for notional work reasons, only to be swept off her feet by her charming local tour guide (Scott Lý). The film hits every holiday-romance beat you expect, but it hardly needs to shake things up: cinema has a proud and comforting tradition of stories in which a trip somewhere sunny and far away proves just the ticket for a character whose life has hit the skids.
My favourite example of the form – the fine wine to the budget lambrini of A Tourist’s Guide to Love – remains David Lean’s Summertime (oddly available to stream only on the free, ad-supported service Pluto). Its story of a buttoned-up, middle-aged American secretary splurging her savings on a long-desired trip to Venice and finding, with a suave Italian antique dealer, the kind of spontaneous romance she’s never known, is the platonic ideal of the genre: bathed in sunshine and Technicolor, the character blooms before our eyes, but the happy ending is compromised and complex, and richer for it.
Britain’s premier example, Shirley Valentine, goes all in on wish-fulfilment, and that’s just fine: irresistibly played by Pauline Collins, the title character rejects rainy Liverpool and the patriarchy in one fell swoop for a package holiday in Greece. When she realises she doesn’t feel like going home, she simply doesn’t – an inspiration to us all. Stella, the burned-out single mother and high-flying stockbroker in How Stella Got Her Groove Back (Amazon Prime), has more calling her back home when she takes an impulsive luxury trip to Jamaica and falls for a much younger dreamboat: now rather dated, it’s a fascinating study in compromise between 90s Hollywood feminism and aspirational lifestyle porn, but Angela Bassett’s bright, spiky performance holds it together.
Still on the glossy Hollywood side of things, albeit notionally based on writer Frances Mayes’s memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun (Disney+) was largely dismissed as magazine-spread film-making at the time. But it benefits from Diane Lane’s rather sober, sensitive approach to the stock character of a divorcee renovating a Tuscan villa, and her life in the process. It has a charm that the gloopier Eat Pray Love, likewise based on a bestselling memoir, never manages – the Indian ashram-set “Pray” component is particularly gruelling – despite Julia Roberts’s smiliest efforts.
Unsurprisingly, the French have a less sentimental approach to the genre: Eric Rohmer’s exquisite The Green Ray (BFI Player) isn’t a film of big life decisions and catharses, but of small pockets of curiosity and revelation, as it follows a restless young woman over the course of a summer where, in the wake of a breakup, she can’t commit to a single vacation plan, instead pinballing between Paris, the Alps and Biarritz, in search of… what exactly? She’ll know it when she finds it. The recent, wonderful Finnish film Compartment No 6 doesn’t chronicle a holiday exactly – instead, its fed-up student protagonist escapes to far-north Russia on a research trip – but similarly unlocks her bliss through unfamiliar travel.
Though it’s a genre largely centred on women, exceptions exist: take Alec Guinness in the rather mordant little 1950 comedy Last Holiday, in which his dying salesman character decides to see out his days (and his savings) in a five-star hotel, living for the first time in the process. (It was remade decades later, much more in line with the formula, with an effervescent Queen Latifah in the Guinness role.) Finally, the spontaneous holiday romance takes on intricate temporal and psychological layers in the marvellous End of the Century (BFI Player), in which an Argentinian man, vacationing in Barcelona, hooks up with a handsome stranger – only to gradually realise they’ve met decades before. Some holidays aren’t about starting a new life, but regaining an old one.
The Plains
(Mubi)
A unique entry in the road movie genre, this remarkable Australian docufiction hybrid from film-maker David Easteal tracks the repeated commute of two office workers sharing a ride home to suburban Melbourne – the camera never leaving the back seat as their daily small talk reveals their personal histories and fragilities. What sounds like a formalist exercise is a humane wonder.
Knock at the Cabin
(Universal)
The latest high-concept horror outing from M Night Shyamalan is his tightest film in a while, working up a genuine cold sweat as its nightmarish woodlands hostage drama escalates into something more expansive and apocalyptic. The more moral and philosophical ideas don’t quite land, but it works as a straightforward dread exercise.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance
(Warner Bros)
The first two films in the Magic Mike series were, in different ways, thoughtful regarding male insecurity and female desire – so it’s a surprise that this one, which sees Steven Soderbergh returning to direct after sitting out the second, has little on its mind. Instead, it’s effectively an old-fashioned if abs-tastic “let’s put on a show” musical, not unenjoyable but a bit listless.

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