Continuing our series of writers sticking up for loathed films is a defence of the commercially successful yet critically lambasted romance
I’m not here to defend the accent. You can have that. I am not going to say that in PS I Love You, Gerard Butler – whose real accent will remain a secret until the day he dies – does a good impression of an Irishman. Although it’s a lot better than reviewers gave it credit for, that is not a hill on which I will get wounded, let alone die. But I have to stand up for one of the most unjustly smeared films of the last 20 years, nay of all time.
PS I Love You is based on the Cecelia Ahern novel of the same name. It’s about Holly (Hilary Swank) trying to cope after her husband Gerry (Butler) dies in his 30s of a brain tumour. It doesn’t sound like thigh-cracking stuff, which is what makes its success all the more fantastic.
Rewatching the film, I basically start crying about 12 minutes in. A long first scene shows us Holly and Gerry arguing as they walk into their too-small New York apartment, unconsciously undressing for bed as they snap and bicker. The argument and reconciliation, which Empire described as “one of the worst scenes of the year”, is utterly believable: the frustration at the parallel conversations sailing past each other; the extraordinary way in which the couple make up, breathlessly kissing each other by way of apology. Knowing that Gerry is soon to die paints these moments a sickly grey, and the sentimental trap of pretending the relationship was perfect is skillfully avoided.
There’s a peculiar snobbery that taints the reception to films like PS I Love You. It’s about love, I think. There can be immense self-satisfaction in pissing on films that honestly try to capture the ugly ecstasy of all-consuming love. Reviewing for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw slapped the label “necrophiliac high concept” on this film about a woman trying to deal with the paralysing grief of losing the love of her life. Richard Curtis once pointed out that his films are criticised for being unrealistic but “If you make a film about a soldier who goes awol and murders a pregnant nurse – something that’s happened probably once in history – it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society.” You don’t have to like Curtis or PS I Love You to see his point. This doesn’t mean that every film about love is a good film – Ryan Murphy’s The Prom proves this – but it’s harder to admit that you were moved by a tender portrayal of love than it is to say that a show about gangsters is good. By 2007 it was cool to mock romcoms, especially ones that dared to say more than one thing.
Another odd criticism of PS I Love You was that it varies wildly in tone. In scoring an easy point, this accusation missed something blindingly obvious: life varies weirdly and wildly in tone as well. If it didn’t vary in tone, the film would be unrelentingly depressing. That is one of the points of the film: even if you are at the bottom of a barrel of misery, contemplating your husband’s death, humour will find you. At every funeral someone is desperately trying to hold in a fart.
To paint the film as a weird romance between a living woman and a dead man is to deliberately misunderstand it. It isn’t just because of the morbid cloud hanging over the film that the flashback scenes of Holly and Gerry meeting for the first time almost move me to tears. They are also gorgeously realised, rose-tinted depictions of love blossoming. Meeting the couple in their 30s and then rewinding 10 years is clever: when they say goodbye after that first encounter, we know they will see each other again. But Gerry doesn’t know – and the agonised longing in his eyes is all too convincing.
I write about bad films from time to time. One of the things that unites them, I think, is that they elicit a response from their audience entirely divorced from the one they intended to. PS I Love You does the exact opposite. It is heartbreaking when it wants to be heartbreaking, and hilarious when it wants to be hilarious. In what sense it’s supposed to be a bad film therefore remains a mystery.
There are times when the majority is right. But, as 2016 taught us, there are times when it is wrong. It was wrong in 2007 as well. I am not pretending that PS I Love You is The Godfather. It’s better than that (I’m kidding). But there is just as much skill in making people laugh and cry as there is in making people stroke their chin in approval. And no amount of snobbery can disguise that.
PS I love this film.