Kevin Maher, chief film critic at The Times, selects the best movies for some much-needed escapism
The central paradox of self-conscious self-declared “travel” movies is that they don’t make you feel like travelling. Globetrotting flicks, in which travelling is the ostensible subject, such as Eat, Pray Love or The Motorcycle Diaries or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, always somehow miss the mark. The locations often overwhelm the characters, and the drama can appear flat. The storytelling is subsumed by the scale. The best travel films, instead, aren’t ever about travel.
Roman Holiday (1953) is travel porn at its finest, but that’s because we care deeply about the unfolding relationship between undercover princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) and opportunist reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). They’re spending the day together in the Eternal City and, yes, they do all the sights (the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain), but the romantic tension between the pair is paramount, as conspicuous as it is convoluted. She’s pretending not to be a princess, and he knows this and is pretending otherwise to spin the date to his own professional advantage. In the famous ‘Mouth of Truth’ scene, at the city’s Basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the couple are faced with their own dishonesty (the tourist legend says that they’ll lose a hand inside the statue if they have lied). She’s scared and tentative but he doubles down on the untruths by pretending to be bitten. It’s a genius piece of character development. The fact that it’s part of one of the greatest long-form travel ads in film history is almost incidental.
IN ROME, GLOBE-TROTTER RECOMMENDS: PAUL SMITH 7” LONDON SQUARE, £925
There’s also some of Joe and Princess Ann in Before Sunrise (1989). Here, our hipster couple are stuck in Vienna for a night and sizing each other up romantically. They also do the sights (snogging on the Wiener Riesenrad, reading poetry along the Donaukanal), with each set-up more wistful than the next. Their nattering flirtatious relationship casts Vienna as the ultimate city of romance (who knew?), one in which the witty denizens, when asked if they speak English reply, “Yah. Of course. But could you speak German for a change?”
IN VIENNA, GLOBE-TROTTER RECOMMENDS: SAFARI 20” TROLLEY CASE, £1,455, BROWN/NATURAL
The Beach (2000) is just silly. Leonardo DiCaprio’s luckless American tourist Richard arrives on a paradise beach and into a cultish community of photogenic hedonists. He’s then almost eaten by a shark, is coerced into sex with the cult’s predatory She-Kurtz Sal (Tilda Swinton), is then ostracised, nearly loses his mind, and is captured by a gang of psychopathic heavily armed cannabis farmers. And STILL we want to go on holidays to Thailand, and to the exact same beach (Maya bay, in Ko Phi Phi Lee). That’s the power of dramatic movies.
IN THAILAND, GLOBE-TROTTER RECOMMENDS: SS20 CHELSEA GARDEN 26” TROLLEY CASE, £1,745, MIDNIGHT BLUE/BLACK
The appeal of Tokyo in Lost in Translation (2003) is much more transparent. The central bond between Bill Murray’s Bob Harris and Scarlett Johansson’s much younger Charlotte is not quite a romance but a soul connection lulled into being by both the city’s quiet hotel bars and loud nightclubs. The relationship ignites specifically, in a karaoke bar, during Harris’s version of Roxy Music’s More Than This. Before it, he croaks through a tone-deaf version of Elvis Costello’s (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding. But then, suddenly, he fills this particular song with feeling and heartache while staring softly at Charlotte. Nothing happens between them, of course. But they, and we, will always have Tokyo.
And then, inevitably, there’s Call Me by Your Name (2017). The easygoing tenderness with which director Luca Guadagnino depicts the relationship between 17-year-old book nerd Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and swoon-worthy 20-something omni-flirt Oliver (Armie Hammer) is accentuated by the sun-drenched surroundings of Lombardy in high summer. Garden parties, bus trips to nearby Bergamo, dancing manically to Love My Way by The Psychedelic Furs, wearing tiny shorts and indecently assaulting a peach? These are the little human details that root the film in a specific place, while also making the romance feel painfully real. It’s the fundamental allure of the quintessential travel movie that’s not really a travel movie.