In the midst of the glamour and hyperbole of golden Hollywood, you’d be hard pressed to find a film quite as endearing as William Wyler’s Roman Holiday. Unaffected by the melodrama and overacting that infiltrates the theatrical allure of some of its contemporaries, Roman Holiday balances sweetness and light with a feeling of weight and heartbreak akin to modern day pictures like La La Land and Carol. It is this freshness, vitality and carefully balanced tone that makes the film so timeless and captivating for even the most cynical of audiences.
Set in Rome, and, as boldly announced in the film’s opening titles, shot there in its entirety, Roman Holiday simply radiates beauty. Every shot is exquisite, meticulously constructed so as to balance the iconic ancient backdrop of the eternal city with the glassy-eyed gazes and luscious soft focus of its two leads; Gregory Peck at his most handsome, and the ever-beautiful Audrey Hepburn in her breakout Oscar-scoring role. Hepburn plays the stifled and sheltered Princess Ann, whose relentless duties lead to her opportunistic escape one night during a trip to Rome in which she is required to act as a figurehead for the consolidation of European relations. Bringing her escapades on the streets of Rome to an abrupt end, she winds up falling asleep in the street, only to be stumbled upon by the Joe Bradley, a kind and worldly American news reporter. Having stumbled upon the scoop of the century, will Bradley exploit the princess for the sake of a story or will the pair’s growing feelings take precedence over his initial opportunistic intentions?
What makes Roman Holiday so enrapturing is its perfect combination of nuance and levity; its two central characters never feel like caricatures, yet still elicit the same feeling of warmth one would expect in any classic romantic comedy. It possesses all the joy and frivolity of a career-defining Billy Wilder comedy, with an extra dose of gravitas infused into its characters, their motivations and their world view. Unencumbered with the melodrama that was so popular in 1950s romance, the film exhibits a subtlety and an exuberant charm that elevates it as one of the defining comedies of the decade, and one that gave rise to an actress and philanthropist who instantly became synonymous with Hollywood itself.
With a closing shot that has the power to break a thousand hearts, it is the film’s ending that cements its place as an era-defining piece of cinema that transcends time and trends in its enduring influence on films today. Peck and Hepburn are simply delightful against an equally spectacular backdrop, presenting us with an entirely convincing and involving relationship that doesn’t only stand the test of time, but acts as the perfect tonic to modern-day cynicism. It is simply a must-watch.