Raine Allen-Miller might reasonably (as this sentence confirms) have feared reviews of her splendid debut romcom would begin with claims that it does for Peckham what Before Sunrise did for Vienna. Rye Lane obliges. Following a charming, spiky couple as they stroll about that corner of southeast London, Olan Collardy’s curious camera discovers woody bars, hip restaurants and elegant parks. But the picture is more than that. No other British film has, in a generation, done such imaginative work in restructuring romantic comedy. It is one of those rare films the audience didn’t know it really, really needed.
We could hardly begin in a less conventional place. Poor old Dom (David Jonsson), abandoned by his girlfriend, is weeping in the cubicle of a unisex loo at a funky art gallery. Yas (Vivian Oparah) offers him a spot of comfort and later joins him on a stroll about the busy streets. They bump into Dom’s ex and her foolish new boyfriend. They embark on an ill-conceived attempt to retrieve lost property from Yas’s former lover. The action is broken up with hugely imaginative flashbacks that, at their height, restage incidents from the young woman’s life in a theatre while her new friend watches from the imagined audience.
Allen-Miller maintains a remarkable balance between the innovative and the traditional as if guiding a speeding car safely around a corner on just two wheels. A hilarious, unlikely cameo from a Richard Curtis regular reassures us that the film retains a connection with a more polite school of comedy. The structure could hardly be more traditional or the final romantic gesture (truly delightful) more in line with the gospel of Wilder and Lubitsch. But the bebop cutting and the busy mise-en-scene ensure the audience is forever on an agreeable edge. Who is that large man staring from a window in the near distance? Watch out for a Bovril palimpsest on a wall and nods to SS Windrush on the pavement.
None of this would much matter if the chemistry spluttered. Happily, Oparah and Jonsson spark off one another from their first lavatorial encounter to a glorious widescreen denouement. The characters are cleanly contrasted — she is the more energised; he is the more fatalistic — without falling into hokey tropes. A cracking romance. A great London film. A sign that cinema is still alive.