Sofia Coppola’s low-budget flick with the woozy soundtrack became an instant classic when it was first released, and it found its stars at very different times in their careers. Bill Murray was undergoing his transition from fading Hollywood funnyman to the elder statesman of indie comedies; Scarlett Johansson, only 17 while filming, was just breaking through to the big time after a successful start as a teen star. Remarkably, the movie managed to avoid the creep factor of the glaring age gap, largely thanks to Coppola’s sensitive control over how the largely chaste relationship is portrayed. She also signed off with a masterful touch, leaving the last whispered words as a private moment between the couple. There are videos available that reveal what was said, but why would you want to?
As Lost in Translation celebrates its 21st anniversary this year, Coppola was on hand to casually bat away question marks about the age gap again. It still plays well because romance isn’t the primary focus of the film; Murray’s ageing actor and Johansson’s lonely young wife are more two lost souls who form an unexpected kinship at an uncertain time in both their lives.
The film really hit me when it was first released in 2003; I had just spent two lengthy spells teaching in Prague and friendships formed in the expat bubble often play differently to the ones you make back in the “real” world. Those relationships are often brief and vivid and incredibly important to you at the time, falling into step with someone who is in a similar boat to you and trying to figure out how things work in a strange place.
That’s why I felt sad at the end of the movie - not because I particularly thought that wrinkly old Bill and fresh young Scarlett should somehow be together, but because I knew that feeling of saying goodbye to people that I’d become very close with over a short period of time and might never see again.
So in celebration of Coppola’s wonderful film, here are some other greats that are always guaranteed to hit me in the feels…
Brief Encounter (1945)
Sofia Coppola has said that David Lean’s classic tale as a major inspiration on Lost in Translation, citing the intense bottled-up emotion delivered by meaningful glances and gestures.
Almost 80 years after it first hit cinemas, Brief Encounter remains one of Britain’s favourite films. It had a powerful impact on movie-goers when it was first released in 1945, and audiences were more sympathetic to the tentative lovers than you might expect from a period when infidelity was far more frowned upon than today. During World War II, there was an uptick in extramarital affairs as people simply didn’t know whether they’d be alive the next day and just seized the moment. After so many separations and heartbreaks during the conflict, the film’s final line, “Thank you for coming back to me,” struck a real chord with British audiences.
It’s easy to poke fun at Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard with their plummy accents, but both performances are strong. Johnson is particularly great, carrying the movie with her sad eyes and furtive inner monologue. She is so believable as a loving mother and comfortable housewife who gets swept up by the prospect of a little romance, only to have her heart broken as it is snatched away. The film’s quietly daring circular narrative really pays off as we see how their final moments together are cruelly interrupted.
Does it still hold up today? At first glance, Brief Encounter seems incredibly twee and classbound compared to the more worldly Casablanca, which feels more modern although it was released three years earlier. Brief Encounter is a true period piece, conjuring up a cosy fantasy of tea rooms, lunch specials, and afternoon matinees at a time when the world had been changed forever by global conflict. Robert Krasker’s wonderful sooty cinematography is so evocative, especially during the scenes at the train station; it really captures the drama and romance of steam locomotives.
Another key aspect is the music, with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto providing a stormy and passionate counterpoint to all the repressed feelings on display. Brief Encounter is one of my mum’s favourite films and she cries every time. As a result, I’ve seen it many times over the years and it always gets me choked up by the end, too. Each time I see it, I start out thinking this might be the time that it is too dated for me. But then, at some point that I can never quite define, I get totally swept away.
If you like your screen romances of the doomed variety, it’s worth checking out this little-seen Czech masterpiece from Frantisek Vlacil. Adelheid is somewhat overshadowed by the films of the Czechoslovak New Wave and the director’s previous tour de force, Marketa Lazarova. Which is a shame, because Adelheid is an intensely powerful drama about an ill-fated relationship between two shell-shocked people in the aftermath of World War II.
Petr Cepek plays Viktor, a former pilot who returns to his homeland and gets put in charge of looking after a large mansion confiscated from a war criminal. As an added perk, the gig comes with a captive housemaid: Adelheid (Emma Cerna), the daughter of the incarcerated Nazi party member awaiting execution. She’s understandably frosty towards Viktor at first and, although he speaks no German and she doesn’t know Czech (or pretends not to), a strong bond forms between them. This is where the tension comes in; it is clear that Viktor is falling in love with Adelheid, but does she reciprocate his feelings? Or is she playing along for her own purposes?
Adelheid is a sombre and weighty picture in the best possible way. It is the cinematic equivalent of curling up in your favourite chair with a good book on a wintery day, luxuriating in the storytelling as the wary relationship unfolds. Ultimately, circumstances are beyond the couple’s control in the wake of the conflict, leading to a devastating conclusion.
Like many Czech films made during the ‘60s, Adelheid fell foul of the Communist authorities because it brought to light one of the most shameful events in the country’s history: The expulsion of over 2 million Czechoslovak Germans after the war in a wave of deportations that resulted in the deaths of around 270,000 people. Unlike some of the other Czech classics that were rightfully restored after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Adelheid has yet to be fully rediscovered.
Death in Venice (1971)
Venice must be the most well-trodden and photographed ghost town in the world, receiving around 20 million visitors each year as the sinking city’s 60,000 inhabitants look on. Once you duck away from the tourist crowds into the maze of water-logged lanes and decrepit alleyways, it has a picturesquely forlorn atmosphere, as if the place is yearning for its eventual resting place at the bottom of the encroaching lagoon.
I fell in love with that side of the city and all I wanted to do when I got home was watch movies about Venice. For such a photogenic location there aren’t a vast amount of classics available, but its two bonafide masterpieces, Don’t Look Now and Death in Venice, are also steeped in sadness.
Luchino Visconti’s exquisitely mournful adaptation of Thomas Mann’s celebrated novella moves at an appropriately funereal pace. Dirk Bogarde puts in the performance of his career as Gustav von Aschenbach, an ailing composer travelling to the city for rest and a bit of sea air. He becomes instantly smitten with Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen), a beautiful androgynous teenage boy.
Tragically, Von Aschenbach is compelled to make himself look younger in an attempt to catch the boy’s attention, and pretty much the whole film plays out on the faces of Bogarde and Andresen as the older man tracks the source of his inspiration around the city and the boy gradually becomes aware of his silent admirer. Pasqualino De Santis’s gauzy photography transports us back to Venice at the turn of the 20th century and Gustav Mahler’s achingly poignant Symphony No. 5 is the perfect accompaniment to Von Aschenbach’s desperate last days.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Just two years after donning Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s famous straight-jacket and hockey mask combo in The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins faced a different set of constraints in The Remains of the Day. James Ivory’s handsome adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel found Hopkins in fine form once again as Stevens, a meticulous and devoted butler whose dedication to his job has left him buttoned up and unable to express his emotions.
This presents difficulties when strong-willed Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) takes a position as housekeeper at the sprawling Darlington Hall in the 1930s. Stevens and Kenton clash at first, but gradually an unspoken affection grows between them. She is able to express her emotions better but their love for one another remains unsaid and unfulfilled, until she eventually leaves the house to marry another man. Years later, an ageing Stevens sets out to visit her after she is widowed… but will he finally be able to tell her how he feels?
Much like Brief Encounter, The Remains of the Day is a tale of repressed love and regret set in a time when class and social conventions in Britain made it difficult for some people to express their emotions. This is shown through some brilliantly nuanced and delicate work from Hopkins and Thompson, leading up to a heart-rending conclusion as poor old Stevens snatches loneliness from the jaws of happiness.
The English Patient (1996)
Anthony Minghella’s impeccable adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s complex romantic novel gets something of a bad rap these days. In some quarters, it is seen as the epitome of prestige Oscar-bait, sweeping the Academy Awards in 1997 and beating more popular fare like Fargo and Jerry Maguire to the big prize.
Minghella’s screenplay does a fine job of condensing Ondaatje’s time-hopping narrative without losing any of the emotion and delivering a stunning tragic payoff. Three years after breaking into the public consciousness as camp commandant Amon Goethe in Schindler’s List, Ralph Fiennes is in dashing form as the horribly burned Count Almasy, a former cartographer in the care of a young French nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), in the closing phases of World War II. As his life ebbs away, the mysterious man recounts the tale of his stormy affair with his friend’s wife, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).
The English Patient is a gorgeous film. John Seale’s rich photography captures the lushness of the Italian countryside in the present day sections, contrasting beautifully with the sun-scorched flashback scenes set in the Sahara where Almasy and Clifton embark on their illicit romance. Gabriel Yared’s haunting score also adds a touch of the exotic to the film’s epic and unabashedly old-fashioned sweep.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Wong Kar-Wai’s elegant In the Mood for Love is one of those movies so alive with the sights and sounds of a certain period that it feels like you could step through the screen and take a wander around. Set in Hong Kong in the early ‘60s, it tells the story of two neighbours, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who start to notice each other when their respective spouses are always out.
As it becomes apparent that their partners are having an affair, they begin to meet up to reenact scenarios to determine how the fling began. Yet while their feelings for each other grow stronger, they never quite manage to take the next step and enter into a physical relationship themselves. Eventually, circumstances conspire to make sure they never get it together, leaving them only with memories and what-ifs.
In the Mood for Love moves at a very leisurely pace, most of the time watching the excellent Leung and Cheung smouldering in their gorgeous period outfits. This is definitely a good thing because it is easily one of the most beautiful films ever shot, and the viewer gets plenty of time to just sit and drink in the luscious visuals.
The ending of Atonement absolutely broke me when I first saw it; so much so that I haven’t been able to watch it all the way through since.
Director Joe Wright teamed up again with Keira Knightley after the success of Pride & Prejudice for a swooning adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize shortlister. She plays Cecilia, the vivacious elder daughter of the wealthy Tallis family, well-matched by James McAvoy as Robbie, the housekeeper’s son she shares a turbulent secret romance with. Any chance of the class-crossed lovers finding happiness is tragically cut short by the spiteful interference of Cecilia’s little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who misinterprets the meaning of an explicit letter from Robbie and gets him banged up for the sexual assault of another girl.
Four years later, World War II has broken out and Robbie is serving in the Army awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk while Cecilia is working as a nurse in London. Briony, now in her late teens, has come to realise her terrible mistake and wants to make it up to the couple. But will they survive the conflict and find true happiness together? The story’s coda, where it is revealed that an elderly Briony has interfered again with their narrative in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past, is devastating.
In truth, Joe Wright’s handling of the material is handsome but a little workmanlike (the same could be said for most of his films) but he still hits the most powerful notes with help from his terrific cast. Ronan stands out in her breakthrough role as the haughty and precocious Briony, a clever girl who isn’t as worldly as she likes to think, with life-changing results. In the filmmaking stakes, Wright really goes for broke with a stunning five-minute tracking shot that follows Robbie through the chaos of Dunkirk beach, a scene that reveals the scale of the British Army’s misadventure on the continent fighting the Nazis. Even Christopher Nolan couldn’t match it for spectacle.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
While set in the 18th Century with all the trappings of a period costume drama, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is also bracingly modern. It’s an impassioned and sensuous empowerment of the female gaze without the salaciousness that usually mars lesbian romances directed by guys (see: Blue is the Warmest Colour).
Sciamma charts the brief affair between a portrait painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), with refreshing frankness. As their desire for one another grows, it turns into an intense sexual partnership between two equals.
The drama is essentially a two-hander set on a remote island, where the windswept location and time spent gaining each other’s confidence provides a respite from the conventions and restrictions of a world controlled by men. This is no feminist wish-fulfilment fantasy, however, as Héloïse is unwillingly betrothed to a rich Italian nobleman and the inevitable return to the patriarchy puts an end to their bliss. Without giving away too much, the final extended shot in a concert hall set to Vivaldi’s “Storm” is a remarkable outpouring of grief over lost love.
Intuitively directed, beautifully shot, and founded on two outstanding central performances, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was an instant classic on release. This was reflected in the 2022 Sight and Sound poll when it leapt straight in at number 30 in the list of the greatest films of all time.
So there you have it, some of my favourite tearjerkers and sad romances. What are your picks? Do you get emotional at movies or do you have a stony heart? Let us know!