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Film Review: The Master Gardener & What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Arts Review2023-5-19By: Marc Glassman


Love Is Strange

The Master Gardener & What’s Love Got to Do with It?

By Marc Glassman


The Master Gardener

Paul Schrader, writer & director

Starring: Joel Edgerton (Narvel Roth), Sigourney Weaver (Norma Haverhill), Quintessa Swindell (Maya), Eduardo Losan (Xavier), Esai Morales (U.S. agent)


Paul Schrader is one of the most distinguished figures in American cinema, renowned for his screenplays for the Martin Scorsese directed classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Schrader was raised in a strict Calvinist family and didn’t see a movie until his late teens so it’s hardly surprising that his films are obsessed with sin and salvation. The dramas in Schrader films, whether as scripts or directed works, focus on solitary men who are trying to find genuine satisfaction in their lives while connecting with a woman in a deeply meaningful way.  A Schrader film is always dark and moody, with overtones of violence and romanticism adding colour to the narrative. When done properly—and not all Schrader films are successes—there’s a hard-earned emotion by the ending that is absolutely extraordinary. It is a bit like religious ecstasy, which isn’t what you normally feel when watching a dark American thriller.

The Master Gardener is a Schrader film through and through. Narvel Roth, the brilliant horticulturalist at the exclusive Gracewood Gardens, is an insular man, who does his job meticulously. As played by the rugged Australian actor Joel Edgerton, Roth knows that his staff have a healthy respect for him and but it’s clear that he isn’t open to them as friends. His one relationship is with Norma Haverhill, the wealthy owner of the gardens and the huge estate that surrounds it. Haverhill is brilliantly performed by Sigourney Weaver as a willful aristocrat, who always gets her way; she’s only charming when she wants to be. She has decided to bring Maya, her grand-niece, to the estate to learn how to be a gardener and expects Roth to train her.

When Maya arrives, she turns out to be hard-working but mysterious, with friends who clearly don’t fit with the Haverhill/Gracewood Gardens style. She’s also of mixed racial origin, which could cause problems for Haverhill, who is part of the conservative American aristocracy. It also poses a problem for Roth when the audience finally sees him with his shirt off, swastikas tattooed on his back and hateful slogans emblazoned everywhere. In brief flashbacks, we’ve understood that Roth’s past was violent and repulsive. His body makes it obvious that he was a neo-Nazi but is he now?

As Roth works with Maya, their mutual regard for each other increases. It is misunderstood by Norma Haverhill, who, on occasion, indulges in Roth’s body for more than horticultural. When Roth and Maya are driven out of the estate by Haverhill, their indulgences as drug addicts are revealed as is their desire to break free of the excesses of their past. For the two, getting clean and becoming a couple becomes mixed with revenge when Maya’s old druggy friends desecrate the Gracewood Gardens.

Schrader sets up a classic noir/thriller narrative: Roth and Maya have to go back to face a distraught Haverhill and, just as importantly, their violent past lives. For Roth, redemption can only come from Maya accepting his dreadful past and getting Haverhill to allow them back to their garden, where they can grow beautiful things again. 

In this film, Paul Schrader has found a superb metaphor for art and religion: a garden that could be in the Bible. The Master Gardener isn’t a perfect film: Edgerton and Quintessa Swindell as Maya generate no sparks as a couple, but the film is nearly perfect in its scene-by-scene execution. It’s a fine example of his work and I suspect it will be studied in film classes 25 years from now. 


What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Shekhar Kapur, director

Jemima Khan, script

Starring: Lily James (Zoe Stevenson), Shazad Latif (Kaz Khan), Shabana Azmi (Aisha Khan), Emma Thompson (Cath Stevenson), Sajal Aly (Maymouna)


It’s rare for a rom-com to make you think but who doesn’t have an opinion about arranged marriages and, especially if you’re British, the modern relationship between the English and Pakistanis? 

What’s Love Got to Do with It? is a frothy and engaging comedy that subversively sneaks serious content into a film about love and marriage. Lily James, the modern incarnation of such glamourous Hollywood screwball comedy icons as Irene Dunne and Claudette Colbert, plays Zoe Stevenson, a relationship-phobic but lovely documentary filmmaker. She grew up next door to Kaz Khan (a charming Shazhad Latif) who has gone from playing in a treehouse with Zoe to becoming a well-respected London doctor. Their mothers, Aisha (the iconic Indian actress Shabana Azmi) and Cath (a befuddled but loveable Emma Thompson) are the best of friends, who have raised their families with mutual respect. 

When Kaz announces to Zoe that he is planning on an arranged marriage, his childhood friend is non-plussed but not enough to prevent her from convincing first him and then his family that she should make a documentary film about it. With growing concern, she follows Kaz as he meets (on Zoom) Maymouna, a gorgeous but enigmatic law student in Lahore, Pakistan. Kaz’s parents, particularly Aisha, support the courtship and, all too quickly, the marriage is set up. 

A spectacular section of What’s Love Got to Do with It? is placed in Lahore, where an elaborate marketplace scene and the entire picturesque marriage sequence is set. Zoe and her mother are invited as part of the wedding entourage and, of course, for the documentary. The most entertaining and “exotic” part of the film is the marriage ritual, which allows for colourful costumes, “Bollywood” music and dancing, and the requisite cast of thousands of extras, all playing out elements of local culture. It’s here that Maymouna reveals herself as a pot-smoking, party-embracing, young woman who is unlikely to be Kaz’s soulmate. Nonetheless, they do tie the marital knot, despite Zoe’s growing uneasiness.

Back in London, Zoe completes the doc while dating a veterinarian set up by her mother. Everything unravels when a rough cut is screened to friends, colleagues and the Khan family, who are horrified that Zoe has interviewed Kaz’s estranged sister who has married a Jew and had a child with him. Comedy turns into melodrama as the vet leaves Zoe because he realizes that his status is Zoe’s “plan B” and her film is rejected as being “too white.” Meanwhile, Maymouna has to finally confront Kaz with the revelation that she loves someone else in Pakistan. 

The film’s finale, set on Eid, involves reconciliation, tears, a grandchild, a tree house and a kiss. Hey—it’s a rom-com!

But it is an interesting one, thanks in a large part to scriptwriter and co-producer Jemima Khan, formerly Goldsmith.  A highly successful documentary producer who has worked with activist Robert Greenwald and award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, Goldsmith may have based the Lily James character on aspects of her real life. Her first marriage was to Imran Khan, the great cricket player who was recently the prime minister of Pakistan and is presently facing (possibly trumped-up) legal charges. She has since gone on to highly publicized relationships with Hugh Grant and Russell Brand.  Jemima Khan’s life could make a great doc. 

What’s Love got to do With It? shows true understanding when the intricacies of Pakistan culture are discussed, which makes sense given her life. Unfortunately, it follows the rules of the Hollywood romantic comedy, trying hard to be inoffensive to every potential audience member. It’s a good film when it could have been great. We never find out what Maymouna’s clearly crazy life in Lahore is all about and who her real lover is—items that would be fascinating. Nor do we delve into the marriage of the Khan’s estranged daughter; instead, there’s an emotional reconciliation. And the scenes in Lahore smack of being folkloric without being insightful, a charge that should never have occurred to Jemima Khan, who should (and presumably does) know better.  

Perhaps I’m being too hard on a pleasant rom-com. It’s just that What’s Love Got to Do with It? could be more than it is. People going to it will likely be satisfied—and, I suppose, that’s enough.



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