Rye Lane Reminds Us That Great Romantic Comedies Have Always Prioritized Setting

Movies Features Romantic Comedies
Rye Lane Reminds Us That Great Romantic Comedies Have Always Prioritized Setting

Something director Raine Allen-Miller understands about London, about most cities really, is that it is a kaleidoscope of areas, both distinct and bleeding into one another. In her feature film debut Rye Lane, London is a mass of bustling neighborhoods, subdivisions that are alive and constantly redefining their boundaries as the city grows up and out. Allen-Miller enacts this with creative camera movements, swiveling around to take in the graffiti-lined streets and wielding a fisheye lens to follow characters wandering between crowded stalls. Rye Lane is being heralded for its simplicity and clarity, a return to form for the romantic comedy, but this belies something more complex which activates the underpinnings of the genre. 

Dom and Yas’ love story is contained within this space and time, specific to Peckham and its inner workings. In keeping with this, their relationship thrives in transit–the period spent traversing different boroughs, sacrificed to what I affectionately call “the black hole of time” specific to South London (mostly due to the absence of an underground layout and the resulting bus traffic). 

Every good genre film must pay attention to the trappings of their setting, but it is especially relevant for the romantic comedy. There is a particular warmth and relatability that the rom-com audience seeks. Most everyone can relate to the sudden, heady crush that overwhelms Yas and Dom in the space of a day, or the slow-burn, sizzling affection of Harry and Sally–but the sense of relatability must extend to the space they exist in. Making sure the city feels lived in, like a real place that could nourish these characters’ love.  

William Wyler’s Roman Holiday is remembered for Audrey Hepburn’s unpracticed charm as Ann and Gregory Peck’s curmudgeonly sweetness as Joe, but the plot itself is convoluted and removed. Wyler uses the near-mystical stature of the city—with its crumbling stone and towering, ornate buildings—to add weight and heft to the feather-lightness of the plot. One of the earliest signs of burgeoning love comes after Ann determinedly steps out onto the cobblestoned streets of Rome, lit by streaming sunlight. Joe suspects Ann’s naivete surpasses that of the average 20-something and follows her. His determination to keep an eye out for her is grounded in a comforting reality, born from someone who is acquainted with the hard-earned awareness of the city’s geography and willing to extend that wisdom with no reciprocation. Over the course of the afternoon, he watches her casually spend money as she remains willingly trapped in a maze of appealing stalls and stands. Their love is born out of mimicking the other’s movements through the city.

While Tess (Melanie Griffith) and Jack’s (Harrison Ford) love story in Working Girl isn’t reflected by New York in such an obvious way, Tess’ independent journey certainly is. Mike Nichols opens the film with a wide shot spinning across the Hudson River, before cutting to the commuters milling around the Staten Island Ferry. Carly Simon’s gravelly voice (“Let all the dreamers / Wake the nation”) cuts through the mindless chatter and swims over the characters as they hustle to their jobs. Nichols’ choice to establish setting before character is bold, but it efficiently starts our hero on her journey. She is ready to transcend this sea of anonymous employees (a political outlook born from a country reeling from Reaganite policies). Her relationship to Jack blossoms from a desire to escape the colorless routine that keeps people statically bound to the New York City blocks and locked out of the top floors of the glistening skyscrapers. 

While You Were Sleeping uses setting to embody Lucy’s (Sandra Bullock) complicated loneliness. Her life is spent cocooned by singleness, whether that be at her shifts as the lone fare collector at the Randolph/Wabash station, or in her time decorating her one-bedroom apartment for Christmas. None of this is inherently bad, but there is a sense that Lucy’s independence leaves her free-floating in a translucent box, watching everyone else guided by a pre-ordained direction. When she is folded into the Callaghan family dynamic, the cold imposing surfaces of her Chicago apartment building are replaced with the inviting warmth of the family’s suburban home. Lucy’s search for unconditional commitment is rendered meaningful in this switch between settings. The realization of her love for Jack (Bill Pullman) comes late in the film, but the audience has been rooting for them since first seeing her nestled within his family home. 

Rye Lane reminds us of how exciting it can be to tell a story that is crafted around a place rather than letting the place sit unacknowledged in the background of the story. The romantic comedy can be unfairly sidelined as a lesser mode of storytelling, accused of diluting such a loaded relationship dynamic into its most palatable format, but elevating the setting of this story is a reliable way of side-stepping such criticism. Dom and Yas’ story is wonderfully specific, indicative of two people who move through their hometown in complementary ways: They’re annoyed by the same self-aggrandizing photographers who take up space in a drafty warehouse; they share the same flavor of chips in the same grimy pub. Such storytelling choices refine the genre’s strengths, reminding audiences what it can accomplish.

Relationships are beholden to place and time. Sometimes they are temporary glimpses of joy, like a blissful weekend getaway, and sometimes they are hard-won, the result of years spent learning a city and making it your own. Great filmmakers function as emotional cartographers, mapping the inroads and passages that can feel familiar to us, even when we’ve never actually been there. 

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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