10 great British films about romance across social divides

Love-stories that break down boundaries.

24 February 2022

By Alex Ramon

Ali & Ava (2021)

Clio Barnard’s latest film, Ali & Ava, brings together its eponymous characters, played by Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, in a rain-soaked contemporary Bradford. He’s a British Asian landlord and former DJ, full of playfulness but undergoing a marital break-up he’s keeping secret from his family. She’s a teaching assistant of Irish descent, mother to several kids, warm and friendly but bearing the scars of an abusive relationship. Initially bonding and bantering over musical tastes, the pair gradually open up and grow closer to each other, falling in love despite the sometimes hostile reactions of their families to their burgeoning romance.

Attentive to the personal histories of its protagonists and the particular social pressures put upon their relationship, Ali & Ava takes its place in a venerable tradition of British films with the theme of love across social and cultural divides. British filmmakers have often been drawn to examining relationships that transgress barriers of class, age, race or gender in work spanning decades and genres, from ‘social problem’ pictures to literary adaptations (heritage and otherwise), socially conscious 1980s cinema to lavish historical dramas. 

Among other things, this focus offers a way of approaching issues around desire and community, and exploring how wider societal forces inhibit, undermine or generally impact upon intimate personal relationships. Though very different, the films highlighted below all share this concern, offering both optimistic and more vexed perspectives on barrier-breaking romance.

Ali & Ava, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 4 March 2022.

Frieda (1947)

Director: Basil Dearden

Frieda (1947)

“Courageously presenting a great controversy of our time!” claimed the none-too-modest tagline to Frieda. Basil Dearden’s film, part of the director’s estimable run of ‘social problem’ pictures produced by Michael Relph (here alongside Michael Balcon for Ealing), follows the fallout from the return of an English airman (David Farrar) to his Oxfordshire home with the German bride (Mai Zetterling) who helped him to escape from a POW camp near the end of the Second World War. Initially awakening a storm of anti-German sentiment, Frieda gradually wins over some of the community. But her position is complicated further by the arrival of her brother.

Unsubtle but nonetheless potent in exposing postwar British prejudices, Frieda was one of the top 10 box office hits of its year, indicating the film’s significance for audiences of the time. Well acted (especially by the Swedish actor Zetterling, for whom the film was her English language debut), the picture remains compelling today, wending its way towards a baldly stated but ever-relevant moral message.

Flame in the Streets (1961)

Director: Roy Ward Baker

Lobby card for Flame in the Streets (1961)
© Courtesy of Stephen Bourne

Based on Ted Willis’s play, Hot Summer Night, and inspired by the 1958 Notting Hill riots, Roy Ward Baker’s film re-sets the drama around Bonfire Night and effectively broadens the scope of the play’s social portrait. At the centre is John Mills’ Jacko, a union leader willing to fight for the rights of a Black colleague in the workplace but less certain when his daughter Kathie (Sylvia Syms) announces her relationship with, and intention to marry, an Afro-Caribbean co-worker, Peter (Johnny Sekka). Even more opposed to the match is Kathie’s mother Nell (a fearsomely good Brenda De Banzie).

Predating Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) by six years and Jungle Fever (1991) by 30, Flame in the Streets has in many respects aged much better than either of its American counterparts, offering a vivid picture of cusp-of the-1960s conflicts. It reaches a clear-eyed conclusion that neither over-romanticises nor indulges in easy pessimism.

Yanks (1979)

Director: John Schlesinger

Yanks (1979)

The presence of American servicemen in England during the Second World War – “oversexed, overpaid and over here,” as the legend goes – wrought significant changes to society that have seldom been explored in drama. John Schlesinger’s under-appreciated film is an exception, highlighting the resulting trysts and tensions by focusing on three relationships between GIs and local women in a small northern town in the months leading up to the Normandy landings.

Lisa Eichhorn’s Jean is romanced by Richard Gere’s Matt, to her family’s varying delight and disapproval, and her friend Mollie (Wendy Morgan) hooks up with Chick Vennera’s Danny, resulting in a pregnancy. Meanwhile, a later-life romance develops between Vanessa Redgrave’s society matriarch and William Devane’s captain, both of whom are already married. Funny and poignant, with a strong sense of place and period, Colin Welland and Walter Bernstein’s script (which also incorporates some of Schlesinger’s own childhood memories) holds the narrative strands carefully in balance, intelligently drawing out conflicts related to family, gender, nation, race and class.

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

Director: Chris Bernard

Letter to Brezhnev (1985)

In unemployment-stricken Liverpool of the early 80s, two friends, Teresa (Margi Clarke) and Elaine (Alexandra Pigg), out on the pull meet two Russian sailors, Sergei (Alfred Molina) and Peter (Peter Firth). For Teresa, a one-night-stand’s all that’s required. For Elaine, the encounter proves more meaningful, awakening a sense of longing that doesn’t dissipate once the big ship sails. She’s prompted to write a missive to Russia’s leader, to see if he can make her dream of a romantic reunion come true.

Chris Bernard’s film both savours and subverts its culture clash set-up, with a script by Frank Clarke that delights in positing parallels between the state of 80s England and that of Soviet Russia. The plot turns fairytale fanciful and, depending on your perspective, is either naive or prescient in its take on Soviet-British relations. But the women’s friendship is as important as the love story, and the film brings some nuance to their characterisations. While the raucous Teresa seems the star of the show, it’s ultimately the quieter Elaine, willing to take a chance on life and love beyond Liverpool, who’s revealed as the more daring of the pair.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Director: Stephen Frears

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Stephen Frears’ seminal south London-set comedy-drama, from Hanif Kureishi’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, threads through its sharp-eyed take on 1980s racial tensions and entrepreneurial ethos a queer love story between the unlikeliest of couples. Gordon Warnecke’s Omar and Daniel Day-Lewis’s street punk Johnny were school friends until Omar saw Johnny participating in a National Front march. The pair are reunited as they set to work at the establishment of the title, falling in love in the process.

Effortlessly capturing its social world of loitering bovver boys and variously disillusioned and thriving immigrants, My Beautiful Laundrette mines social tensions with wit and insight. In a film full of memorable characters and dialogue, it’s one of the quietest moments that resonates the most, as Johnny, expressing regret about his dubious past, slips his hand into Omar’s shirt and tells him: “I’m with you.”

Maurice (1987)

Director: James Ivory

Maurice (1987)

With their combination of intricately drawn social worlds and detailed character portraits, Victorian and Edwardian novels have provided fertile ground for screen adaptations highlighting relationships across class and other barriers – even if certain critics complained that the novel’s elements of social critique sometimes got muffled by the pristine period trappings of the films.

At the time of its release, that claim was certainly made about Maurice, Merchant Ivory’s take on E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel, which explores the gay awakening of a middle-class stockbroker in an England defined as a country “disinclined to accept human nature”. But time has been kind to the film, with many audiences subsequently embracing it as a groundbreaking work of queer heritage cinema. It’s notable, among other things, for its unusually affirmative perspective, as James Wilby’s conflicted hero finally finds fulfilment across the class divide with Rupert Graves’ under-gamekeeper Alec.

Jude (1996)

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Jude (1996)

From its bleak black-and-white prelude onwards, Michael Winterbottom’s Jude is self-consciously much tougher in tone and edgier in form than the films derived from Forster’s work: indeed, screenwriter Hossein Amini spoke of his and Winterbottom’s intention to “destroy the heritage film from within”.

To that end, the filmmakers place their version of Thomas Hardy’s 1895 masterpiece Jude the Obscure (a novel received with such hostility upon publication that the author never wrote another) in other cinematic contexts. Jude draws inspiration from the British New Wave and European art cinema to present a fresh take on the story of a stonemason with academic ambitions falling foul of an ill-advised first marriage and the class prejudices of the time. At the centre is the bond between Christopher Eccleston’s Jude and his cousin Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslet), a relationship so harshly viewed that it leads to ostracism, poverty and tragedy. Amini and Winterbottom truncate the conclusion to the film’s detriment, but the bitter portrait of lives and love thwarted by society still hits home.

The Mother (2003)

Director: Roger Michell

The Mother (2003)

More transgressive romance from the pen of Hanif Kureishi, here directed by the late, lamented Roger Michell in one of his finest films. This time the widowed sixtysomething May (Anne Reid), lonely and disoriented as she stays in London with her children after her husband’s death, falls for Darren (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), who is not only 30 years her junior but also the boyfriend of her daughter (Cathryn Bradshaw).

Sharp on family dynamics – and a great London film, including visits to Hogarth’s grave and a memorably excruciating night out in Soho – The Mother doesn’t shy away from making May and Darren’s bond an intensely sexual connection. In a brave, exposing performance, Reid powerfully charts the protagonist’s grief and awakening, and if the film’s perspective on its age-gap relationship turns deeply pessimistic, that doesn’t lessen its subversive stance, which ultimately endorses May’s need for liberation from all romantic and familial ties.

Ae Fond Kiss… (2004)

Director: Ken Loach

Ae Fond Kiss... (2004)

Taking its title from Rabbie Burns’ aching love song, Ali & Ava’s closest cinematic cousin is Ken Loach’s interracial romance, in which a Muslim Scottish Pakistani DJ, Casim (Atta Yaqub), and an Irish Catholic music teacher, Roisin (Eva Birthistle), meet and fall in love in Glasgow. But their impromptu Spanish holiday idyll turns sour when Casim belatedly confesses the truth about his situation: he’s due to marry a cousin in a couple of months, a union his parents have arranged. Returning home determined to call off the marriage, Casim finds himself facing even greater family resistance than he’d imagined, while Roisin’s teaching job at a Catholic school is also jeopardised by the relationship.

This being a Loach film from a Paul Laverty script, the conflicts are all upfront, but the film gains in depth as it takes care to highlight prejudices on both sides of the racial and religious divides. Blessed with a sharp but humane vision, Ae Fond Kiss… remains one of Loach’s warmest, and also sexiest, films – for all the fraught emotions on display.

A United Kingdom (2016)

Director: Amma Asante

A United Kingdom (2016)

The focus of Amma Asante’s drama is the romance between Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (later Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the Englishwoman he met while studying in London after the Second World War. The couple eventually marry despite the protests of their families and fierce opposition from the British government, which is concerned about relations with South Africa.

A United Kingdom was made by Asante between the acclaimed Belle (2013) and the less-loved Where Hands Touch (2018), thereby forming a loose trilogy of historical dramas. Though classical in style, the three films gain much of their interest from their centring of interracial relationships more usually excluded from British period pieces. Boosted by fine performances from David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, A United Kingdom offers a heartfelt portrait of a couple refusing to be victims of the prejudices underpinning the politics of their time.

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