Roman Holiday (1953)

William Wyler | 1hr 58min

After Breakfast at Tiffany’s, this is the version of Audrey Hepburn that stands tall in the public consciousness – a young, fresh-faced actress who, while not yet entirely refined in her craft, exudes such natural magnetism that she can carry entire scenes solely with her reactions. This performance, paired with that of the handsomely confident Gregory Peck, makes for a breezy two hour hangout in the streets of Italy.
 
Aside from the clear acting talent on display, Roman Holiday is also all the more effective for its location shooting in the nation’s capital, with William Wyler clearly relishing every opportunity to frame his actors against bell towers, sculptures, cars, stairs, columns, and historical monuments. The seeping of Italian neorealism into American film culture is evident here as early as 1953, even if the product is more hybridised than directly imitative. It isn’t like the studio system of this era to step beyond its backlots and sound stages, but the extra effort pays off here in emphasising the emotional immediacy of the characters and their environment, thereby letting the plot take a backseat much like the films of neorealism.

Shooting on location makes a real difference in setting this film apart from so many other Hollywood films of this era, drawing on the influence of Italian neorealism though with a distinctly more romantic tone.

The tension that underlies the narrative is twofold – firstly in the lie that Joe is maintaining to get a good news story out of the runaway Princess Ann, and secondly in Ann’s own concern about being pulled back into the restrictive royal lifestyle she has grown tired of. We get just enough of these complications recurring through the ensuing adventures that they are never forgotten, but they are not so present that they dominate the sheer joy and romance of the film.

A fantastically efficient character introduction in these sly cutaways to Ann stretching her feet beneath her dress during a formal engagement.

The minimal exposition is especially notable, as all it takes is a few cutaways of Ann slipping her feet out of her heels and stretching during a formal engagement to understand her dissatisfaction. Likewise, the ten-minute finale which wraps up Roman Holiday resolves every single lingering emotional thread with nothing but a few looks and words between the two lovers at a public press conference. Though these words hold little significance on their own, they are brimming with the subtext of coded lovers language. You could mute this scene and understand everything purely through their expressions – Ann’s disappointment in realising the lie Joe has told, his shame at her discovery, her silent forgiveness, his gratitude for their lives crossing, and finally, a mutual, bittersweet understanding that they are set on different paths.
 
Most of all, Roman Holiday is proof that “sweet and charming” doesn’t necessarily mean “small and modest”. William Wyler is a director with an eye for deep focus imagery, and he puts it to good use here by turning Rome’s architecture and geography into a living, breathing environment, providing Ann and Joe the romantic, challenging adventure that both needed at this point in their lives, whether they knew it or not.

A moving end to this brief relationship, everything resolved in pointed subtext and then a silent, satisfied walk away.

Roman Holiday is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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