Fellow Mama Mia! haters, I understand how much you might fear Love is All You Need. On the surface there are so many similarities: the setting a destination wedding in the Mediterranean (in this case, Italy’s Amalfi Coast rather than a Greek island), a quirky mother of the bride and the elegant presence of Pierce Brosnan, standing around looking slightly aloof yet dreamy. But director and co-writer Susanne Bier’s (Brothers, Open Hearts) movie is a far more thoughtful, gentle look at love and family; it’s the art-house version of a good Hollywood rom-com. Ultimately, instead of calling to mind Mama Mia! it feels more reminiscent of two 2000 films, Bread and Tulips and the Dogme film Italian for Beginners.
The movie, which is subtitled and alternates between Danish, Italian and a smattering of English, starts with a glowing bride, Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind, who has even better blonde tresses than Gwyneth Paltrow) and her nervous groom Patrick (Sebastian Jessen) arriving in Italy to get his family’s vacation home ready for their wedding. The villa is set among lemon groves, has gardens with balconies built over the sea and stairs down to secret beaches. But the house has been abandoned for years; Patrick’s irascible father Philip (Brosnan) couldn’t bear to spend time there after his wife’s untimely death.
Even when he’s as cranky as Philip, the sad widower is really the dream stuff of romantic comedies (see: Sleepless in Seattle). The widower is a seasoned love interest, but no culpability, no legal proceedings required, and no obligations but grieving. Philip’s own sister-in-law, Benedikte, played by the marvelous Allison Janney look-a-like Paprika Steen, practically has to wipe the drool over her chin whenever she’s around him. Would that someone would write a contemporary romance where everyone is in hot pursuit of a widow over 50.
With a fine prospect like this about, is there a clumsy but good-hearted woman around? Maybe one who doesn’t know her own beauty or has been maligned by her own spouse, or better yet, both? Enter Ida (Trine Dyrholm, who starred in Bier’s Oscar-nominated film In a Better World), Astrid’s mother back in Copenhagen, recovering from breast cancer. Her chemotherapy is over and she’s just waiting to find out if she is cancer-free when she arrives home to find her husband Leif (Kim Bodnia) bending a young woman from “accounting” over the couch. She and Philip first meet at the airport after she backs into his car. He’s rude to her, her wig almost falls off; it’s the middle-aged version of meeting cute.
Read: What TIME’s Richard Corliss had to say about Bier’s In a Better World (hint, not a fan)
It’s so easy to spot where Love is All You Need (ouch, that title) is going that I almost groaned at the parking-lot collision. And yet at the same time, within the predictability of Ida and Philip finding each other, there are flashes of romantic unconventionality. When Leif shows up at the wedding with his girlfriend Thilde (the funny Christiane Schaumburg-Müller) in tow—and now introducing herself as his fiancée—even the generally saintly Ida can’t fake her way through the pleasantries and goes off to gaze into the sea. There’s a lovely scene that follows where Philip spots her swimming, nude, from high up on the cliff and goes down to check on her. She comes out of the water, naked, bald, one breast mangled by surgery and they have a blue-eyed stare-off that’s quite something. He won’t look away and while modesty and mortification seem to fit with the character of Ida, she seems to grow bolder, fiercer under his stare. There’s something glorious about her nudity, his response to it, and her response to his response.
It’s also heartening to see such a matter-of-a-fact depiction of the physical ravages of breast cancer and its treatment. The movie may have all the trappings of a happy confection, from the slapstick business of various family members punching each other to many glam shots of scenery that seems destined to increase bookings of Amalfi Coast vacations (including a few amid the idyllic lemon groves that have given Philip such a comfortable existence). But Biers and her frequent co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen, take their characters seriously. From the family member exploring his sexuality to the resentful teenaged daughter to Ida, who doesn’t want to cast a pall over the wedding by lamenting over her cancer, her marital crisis or the fact that the airlines never manage to get her lost baggage to her, these people go beyond the usual props and stereotypes who populate romantic comedies.
But much of what makes Love is All You Need so appealing, and a natural followup to that Mother’s Day brunch of eggs Benedict, has to be attributed to performance. Dyrholm has an unusual magnetism, the kind of face that seems open and unguarded, yet you can’t figure out just what it is she’s thinking — she and Brosnan
share an excitingly adult chemistry. If you know something of his history, that the actor himself lost a beloved wife, all too young, there is a special resonance to the back story given to Philip. But I don’t want to overstate the impact of the personal on the performance; Brosnan is just at his witty, tender best.
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