Film Review: When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally, part of the BFI Love Film season, is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre on Tues 22 and Wed 23 December.

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‘When Harry Met Sally’ isn’t just a romantic comedy – it’s the benchmark by which all subsequent rom-coms have been measured. The film critic Roger Ebert reviewed ‘When Harry Met Sally’ on its release in 1989, calling it “a love story with a form as old as the movies and dialogue as new as this month’s issue of Vanity Fair.” You can see the film’s lineage in old-school titles such as ‘Bringing up Baby’ and ‘It Happened One Night’. The characters are sharply drawn, brilliantly realised – and on screen, the chemistry crackles.

‘When Harry Met Sally’ applies all of this to contemporary New York – filter in existential angst and the fear of bumping into your ex in a city of 8 million people – and the stage is set.

The film begins with the lead characters, Harry Burns and Sally Albright, graduating from University and driving across the country to begin their careers in New York. During the journey, Harry brings up the question – can a man and woman really be friends? They reach New York not having resolved the question even remotely, discovering they are very different people. They say their farewells, and we re-join them five years later.

Harry has become an architect, Sally a journalist. Their chance meeting at an airport sparks a friendship. After several failed relationships, the fact finally dawns on them. In being completely different, they are a perfect match.

Films do have a tendency to fall in and out of favour, but in watching ‘When Harry Met Sally’ again, it’s remarkable how little it’s aged. This film has great pedigree, with Nora Ephron as screenwriter and Rob Reiner directing. It also contains career-best performances from Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, whose respective gifts for comedy dovetail beautifully.

The romance in this film is underplayed and the delight is that we see it coming a mile off, while the discovery that they love each other comes as a bolt from the blue for Harry and Sally. The final scenes, with a confession of love during a New Year’s Eve party, still has the power to move us, as Harry lists Sally’s foibles as the very reason he loves her. For such an intensely verbal film, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ knows when to stop talking, and let the heart take over – and that’s why it’s lost none of its vibrancy.

At the centre of the film is Nora Ephron’s dazzling screenplay. Her fast-paced dialogue would defeat most actors, but Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal persuade us that these perfectly-formed sentences trip off the tongue with joyful spontaneity. Ephron’s gift as a screenwriter was giving characters eloquence and making it believable. Dialogue, at its best, should feel effortless, and Ephron uses her skill here to create an eminently quotable film – and makes it look easy.

Review by Helen Tope.


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