REVIEW: ‘Sylvie’s Love’ is a decadent period romance reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age

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Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugah star in Sylvie’s Love.

While 15 years ago, the romance genre seemed in the middle of a newfound renaissance with films like “The Notebook,” “Dear John,” and “A Walk To Remember,” the past decade has seen a noticeable shift away from the kind of gauzy, saccharine romances that you used to be able to throw on and simply ndulge. Eugene Ashe’s “Sylvie’s Love,” though, released on Amazon Prime Video Dec. 23, is a revival of the traditional romance — going beyond early 2000s heartstring-tuggers and instead channeling the radiance of the classic black-and-white romances from Hays Code-era Hollywood. 

Though the pacing and structure do the story somewhat of a disservice, the indulgent production design and Tessa Thompson’s winning lead performance make “Sylvie’s Love” the type of breezy romance film a reminder of a bygone era — a “simpler time.” 

Starring Thompson as the titular protagonist, “Sylvie’s Love” follows Sylvie Parker, the well-off daughter of a music store owner (Lance Reddick) and a ladies’ etiquette teacher (Erica Gimpel). Thanks to her traditional upbringing, Sylvie married young, and her husband, Lacy, is a soldier off fighting overseas. When the poor but talented saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) takes a job at her father’s record store to be closer to her, she initially shrugs off his advances. 

The more they get to know each other, though, the more they hit it off, and Sylvie and Robert begin a passionate albeit brief romance. They’re separated when Robert has a massive stroke of luck with his music career and begins work overseas, unaware that Sylvie is pregnant with his child. From there, their paths begin to diverge — Sylvie forges a path towards her dream of becoming a television producer, while Robert jumpstarts a music career that eventually fizzles into nothingness. But, after spending years apart, the two are finally reunited — and while it’s clear they both harbor feelings, Robert’s unwillingness to give up his career, and Sylvie’s obligation to her child and now-returned husband separate them.

As the name implies, “Sylvie’s Love” is very much a film about Sylvie, so it’s a good thing that Thompson’s lead performance is the best of the bunch. Everything from her vocal cadence to her posture just seeps of old hollywood glamour. As Sylvie, Thompson channels starlets like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn — just as intelligent as she is beautiful. Sylvie is the type of character who could, in less capable hands, come off as snobbish, prudish, or even unlikable, but Thompson has an innate charm that serves her well here. Sylvie may not be perfect, but she’s easy to understand and even easier to root for, and she makes for a compelling protagonist.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for her romantic lead, Robert. Where Sylvie is the point-of-view character and gets the audience’s full attention through the entirety of the film, Robert isn’t as lucky, and is more than once a victim of the film’s willingness to jump through several years to keep the narrative going. Although he starts out strong, his character fades away by the end of the film, swallowed up and shoved aside by Sylvie’s career aspirations until he’s barely on our consciousness as a character, much less the romantic hero we should be rooting for. If given more to do, one could imagine that Asomugha could have had the chops to shine just as brightly as Thompson, but his character is unfortunately underserved, and his serviceable performance doesn’t do much to help that. 

Also regrettably uninspired is Sylvie’s husband Lacy (Alano Miller) who is initially positioned as the enemy in the way of Robert and Sylvie’s love; he shows up in the third act and is presented in almost a sympathetic light. He too has the makings of a great character, but he’s introduced far too late in the narrative to amount to much more than an obstacle Sylvie needs to skirt instead of a fully-fledged character.

The film’s impressive ensemble, though, fares better. Eva Longoria’s colorful entertainer Carmen steals every scene she’s in, and Reddick and Gimpel make the most of their smaller roles as Sylvia’s parents Reddick brings just the right amount of humor and tenderness as Sylvie’s father that we can see where she gets much of her personality, and when the film needs a non-romantic villain, Gimpel’s Eunice makes for the perfect uptight mother. Wendi McLendon-Covey is also fun as Lucy, the stand-and-stir cooking show host whom Sylvie eventually goes on to work for. 

While the cast is filled to the brim with talent, “Sylvie’s Love” fumbles when attempting to craft a coherent, compelling narrative. While Sylvie herself is well fleshed-out and consistent, the rest of the characters fall to the wayside, and all the time jumps that cater to Sylvie’s story make it difficult to get to know or like anyone else. The film also budgets its time poorly between Robert and Lacy — the former should’ve had a much more significant role in the third act if the film really wanted to bill itself as a romance.

But the plot isn’t what will draw you to “Sylvie’s Love” — no, it’s the softly lit frames, the effortlessly radiant heroine, and the sweeping, jazzy score that make the film worthwhile. Where films like “Mank” tried and failed to recreate the feeling of watching a classic Hollywood film, “Sylvie’s Love” does so effortlessly — everything from the opening credits to the shot composition feels plucked out of a ‘50s film. While its structural issues may impede you from investing in the love story at its core, the beauty and decadence of “Sylvie’s Love” make it the perfect film if you’re looking to be washed under the tide of old Hollywood romance.