The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
There is a genuinely lovely concept at the heart of Sliding Doors and one that has always given the film an element of originality even though really it’s not that original a story. Essentially, Peter Howitt’s 90s British rom-com gives its audience two films for the price of one and ends up becoming a thoughtful exploration on themes such as fate, destiny and what-ifs.
While she is now more famous for seemingly not being able to remember what Marvel movies she has appeared in, along with her interesting choice on how to make candles, it’s maybe easy to forget that during the 90s Gwyneth Paltrow was a massive movie star. Yes, she still is, although more famous nowadays for things like that candle that she made, while a current generation of moviegoers might associate her with being in the Iron Man movies, back in the 90s she was more well known for her choice of award-winning movies, being able to do a convincing English accent and subsequently for one of the most infamous Academy Award speeches of the decade.
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Her ability to go from period dramas such as Emma and Shakespeare in Love to more contemporary fare such as Sliding Doors to Se7en marked her as a major star of the era, with an ability to carry commercial fare but also more challenging material. On the surface, Sliding Doors looks like the type of UK-produced, American distributed, rom-com that emerged frequently in the wake of the success of Four Weddings and a Funeral, but in truth, the film had a lovely sense of originality and a brilliant high concept hook with which to draw you in.
What gives the film something of an edge is that isn’t merely interested in concocting a fairytale-like middle-class depiction of romantic comedy life in late 90s London, although to be clear, it’s a film that very much falls into that setting. However, what makes it a tad darker in spirit than the following year’s Notting Hill, or the Bridget Jones movies that were just waiting around the corner, was its, dare I say, philosophical elements.
The film presents Paltrow’s character Helen on the worst day of her life, grabbing the train on the way home and then discovering her boyfriend’s infidelity. Then the film backtracks to show us what would happen if she didn’t get the train, and then proceeds to devote itself to her character across two separate timelines where her life diverges on different paths, all thanks to whether or not she gets the train; something decided by the sliding doors of the title.
It’s a brilliant conceit for a movie and Howitt’s screenplay and direction runs with the set-up, devoting itself to little details here and there as in one story her relationship with philandering boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) continues without any knowledge of his affair, while in the strand where she does make that discovery, she finds new love in a relationship with the very charming James (Four Weddings‘ John Hannah) and even gets a new haircut (which is how the film eventually differentiates its two separate strands).
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Complete with a hit theme song from Aqua (and a surprisingly effective and enjoyable song it is too, from a group more famous for the godawful ‘Barbie Girl’; Google it if you dare), the movie was a massive hit in the UK and scored a high international box office gross, another major success for a UK romantic comedy, although in the end Sliding Doors goes for some heavy doses of reality when it comes to its climax.
Being two separate versions of a story featuring the same lead allows for each part of the movie to go for two completely tonal endings; in one she dies, in the other, she lives. While in one she finds happiness with James, the one where she lives sees her have to endure the heartbreak of finding out about Gerry’s infidelity, although the eventual ending of the film suggests that she may, in fact, find true love with James and that her relationship with the charming Scot who likes to quote Monty Python (he’s a keeper) might in fact be destiny after all.
Sliding Doors was part of a plethora of romantic films with a conceit that ran to fantasy during the decade. Some of these movies actually went the whole nine yards with the genre and went to town with the fantasy elements, such as 1990s mega-successful Ghost, the underseen and underappreciated Hearts and Souls from 1993 and, in the same year as Sliding Doors, Brad Silberling’s City of Angels, a remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and which boasted superb performances from Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan, and combined a considerable dreamy atmosphere, gorgeous LA skyline photography, a truly devastating ending and the Goo Goo Dolls song ‘Iris’ as its theme.
Others took the fantasy or ‘what if ‘elements and used them subtly to tell more quietly sadder tales of the human dimension. As well as Sliding Doors, 1998 also saw the release of If Only (which also goes by several other titles including The Man With Rain in His Shoes) starring Lena Heady, Penelope Cruz and Douglas Henshall, that involved its lead character going back in time to salvage his relationship only to find that it was doomed to fail all along.
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What was so great about these films is how they populated themselves with the most gorgeous and talented movie stars of the era, but always had so much thematic material to chew on. Sliding Doors was part of that cycle that asked a lot of its audience, but in a manner that was charming but also emotionally devastating, but in a way that a more inherently ‘serious’ film might never have gotten across to a mainstream audience because it might never have been as fun.
It might seem strange to think of a film featuring a theme song from the band behind ‘Barbie Girl’ and which was written and directed by that guy of the 80s sitcom Bread as having such lofty intentions, but it surprisingly does. The ending hits hard because Howitt’s script and Paltrow’s performance work so well together and Paltrow is superb here. She might have been seen as a tabloid favourite at the time due to her well-publicised relationships with the actors she was involved with, and certainly, her business interests nowadays raise a lot of eyebrows, but she has always been a major talent and her 90s output is a testament to that. While we might make fun of the Oscar speech she gave a little over a year after Sliding Doors’ release, it’s easy to forget that we, the audience, were crying over her character’s fate here, and it takes a great kind of actor and a special kind of film to do that.