“Love is All You Need” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas in Madison. R, 1:50, three stars out of four.
Honestly, I didn’t trust the poster for “Love is All You Need.” It looks like a typically flluffy romantic drama, with Pierce Brosnan and Trine Dyrholm embracing in front of an Italian landscape — “Something’s Gotta Give” with subtitles. But the director is Danish filmmaker Susannah Bier, known for some pretty dark dramas (“Brothers,” “In a Better World.” It would be just like her to pull the rug out from underneath our middle-aged lovers, and the audience.
But, no, “Love is All You Need” comes mostly as advertised, a fluffy and warm romance about characters finding love in the Italian countryside. But Bier and longtime screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen do introduce sadder notes into their brightly-colored landscapes, which deepen the characters enough that we root for them.
Ida (Dyrholm) has just undergone cancer treatment, her bald head hidden by a long blonde wig. Her daughter is getting married in Sorrento, so as she waits for the final word on whether the treatment worked, she tries to throw herself into the celebration. But when she catches her doughy husband on top of a female employee, she heads to Italy with a pained look, wondering if she’s beating cancer only to win a lifetime of loneliness.
Then she meets Philip (Brosnan), an executive who has thrown himself into his work following the death of his wife. Philip is also the father of the man Ida’s daughter is marrying, and owns the sumptuous villa where the wedding is taking place. He’s brusque and arrogant, flat-out rude to Ida at first, but slowly starts warming up to her charms. Leaving behind the Danish blues and grays of her past films, Bier seems to revel in the warm, bright colors at her disposal here, the bright yellow lemons in the villa’s grove playing off against the deep blues of Philip’s shirts.
On one level, this is only one or two notches deeper than a Nancy Meyers flick, but Bier does play with darker themes. Ida is terrified to hear what her doctor has to tell her, and masks her fear with a dazzling smile. Similarly, the return to the villa is dredging up Philip’s bitterness and grief over his wife’s death, which he’s tamping down under a no-nonsense exterior. Ida and Philip are opposites on the surface but very alike underneath, and the film is very appealing as the couple slowly open up and share themselves to each other.
There are other aspects of “Love” that feel overplotted, like a guilty secret that the groom holds, or the grating presence of an aunt who has designs on Philip herself. But when the film gets back to that central relationship, it’s a treat. I think Bier might be a little too acute an observer of human behavior to agree with the simple premise of her film’s title, but she makes us believe it for a while, anyway.