Sundance Review: 'Ali & Nino', Starring Adam Bakri and María Valverde

Star-crossed lovers and period romance stories somehow go hand in hand, it seems. Combined with the drama of war, Ali & Nino is a cross between Atonement and Love and War and a plethora of other similar films. And while the concept of a man and a woman from different backgrounds coming together in love isn't unheard of, the story of a Muslim Azerbaijini man and a Christian Georgian woman is, which makes it stand out a bit more than the others. Ali & Nino looks extravagant and beautiful. The romance can be simple, sweet, and lovely at times, but it does fall a bit on the melodramatic side.
Based on the novel by Kurban Said of the same name and set right before World War I until 1920, the story of Ali & Nino follows Ali Khan Shirvanshir (Adam Bakri, Omar) and Georgian Princess Nino Kipiani (María Valverde, Exodus: Gods and Kings) whose courtship begins late in their teens. Both are from prominent families, Ali's family having ruled what is now Azerbaijan for 700 years, and Nino's family comes from wealth and high class.
Their courtship isn't a problem until Ali asks Nino to marry him and her father and mother, Duke (Mandy Patinkin) and Duchess Kipiani (Connie Nielsen), although they hold Ali in high regard, think that there are too many cultural and religious differences between them. Things take a complicated turn when someone they thought was a friend attempts to kidnap Nino and marry her. And as the Great War approaches, Ali and Nino's love is tested amid uncertain times and the fight for Azerbaijan's independence.
Before getting into the plot and characters, it has to be mentioned first and foremost that the music and cinematography are just beautiful. The music is almost nostalgic, yet romantic, sad but hopeful. It can sometimes overshadow certain scenes, but it's wonderful and soothing to listen to. The cinematography is absolutely stunning as well, with the use of natural outdoor locations and inside sets, Ali & Nino is sophisticated in its look.
The film, for the most part, stays true to its source material. It covers the ups and downs of the relationship and the pressures from the outside world as well. Adam Bakri and María Valverde play to the sentimental aspects of their characters, so they're very romanticized calm even in the most dire of times. They have wonderful onscreen chemistry and it's in their quieter moments, when they're not worried about what's to come, that the film really shines.
Ali & Nino isn't a perfect romance, and it's most certainly a bit on the melodramatic side. The use of culture in certain instances is well-played, but the entire story isn't as developed as it could have been. If anything, director Asif Kapadia and writer Christopher Hampton try to use too much of the source material, so that it isn't able to fit properly around a love story set in war. There's a lot going on and sometimes it feels more like a historical fiction rather than just a simple romance. It can become a bit slow at times, but the film works if you're willing to embrace its melodrama and almost dream-like romantic qualities of love and war. The fact that the film portrays a sweet romance between two people from different backgrounds (and from a book that's immensely popular in the eastern part of the world) should at least be commended and hope there will be more of this in the future of film.