Tessa Thompson swoons in polished retro romance Sylvie's Love: Review
Nothing wildly unexpected happens in Sylvie’s Love, the lush mid-century melodrama that comes to Amazon Prime on Wednesday. Beautiful people fall in love and fall apart; chase their dreams and more than not, make them come true by the time the credits roll. Love’s most radical act may be the simple fact of its Blackness — that the faces at the center of the screen are ones that for so many decades we’d mostly see only in the margins of a movie like this, or not at all.
Tessa Thompson, awash in lavish swirls of shantung, angora, and chiffon, is the titular Sylvie, a well-bred Harlem girl already promised to a nice boy off fighting the war in Korea. In the meantime she’s spending the summer of 1957 behind the counter in her father’s record store, when a young jazz saxophonist named Robert (All-Pro NFL cornerback turned actor Nnamdi Asomugha) wanders in and snags a job alongside her.
Robert’s a music fan of course, but Sylvie is the real draw. And he does win her over, slowly but surely, with a charm offensive that a fiancé several continents away can’t touch. His quartet is also on the rise, under the eye of a new manager (Girls’ Jemima Kirke) who has connections in Europe. A summer of love — cue the montage! — leads inevitably to separation in the fall, and more than a few winters of their discontent.
It's a tale as old as celluloid, and writer-director Eugene Ashe (2012’s Homecoming) cloaks it all in the richly patinaed palette of a Turner Classic, his Manhattan recast in a Technicolor West Side Story glow. (Rarely has New York been blessed with such theatrically immaculate streets; a starving pigeon wouldn't know where to land.) Violins swell like heartstrings in almost every scene as the storyline shifts smoothly from soft-focus romance to Sylvie’s misbegotten marriage with Lacy (Alano Miller), a man who looks excellent on paper but falls flat in three dimensions.
Whether she’ll be able to build a career as one of vanishingly few Black female producers in daytime TV, maintain her best-wife status with the suburban bourgeoisie, and not lose her soul entirely are the questions Ashe’s script nominally poses but never really casts any doubt on. The specter of racism too is handled with a velvet glove, indubitably present but never tipping over into the abrasive or outright ugly.
There's a gentle sort of reprieve in that, though it's hard not to wish for a few more sharp edges — or even, impatiently, a genuine twist — from a screenplay that so often feels like it's running on rails from one polished beat to the next. What's left then is just to soak in the plush composition of Sylvie's setting and watch a serenely lovely Thompson, her face perched like a flower above all those immaculate costumes, wend her way to love. B