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Roman Holiday review – sun-kissed classic is as charming as ever

William Wyler's iconic 1953 rom-com, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, returns to theatres for its 70th anniversary

What greater pleasures are there in life than to be on holiday in a historic European city – those cigarettes smoked, those cold tipples sipped, as you sit streetside under the balmy afternoon sun? A centuries-old palace here, the promise of a flirty romance there, with no obligation to do anything but luxuriate in the expanse of the lengthening day. Roman Holiday effortlessly captures this sense of fun and freedom that can only last fleetingly before normal life beckons with a churlish finger. Re-released for its 70th anniversary, Audrey Hepburn imparts a fawnlike charm in this wholesome Hollywood classic, which remains so easy to watch and love today.

Starring Hepburn in her first stateside film opposite a louche Gregory Peck, the film spans 24 hours in the life of a put-upon young princess who escapes her seemingly never-ending diplomatic tour of Europe for a day of fun in the Eternal City. Unbeknownst to her, the dashing gent who offers to escort her not only is cognisant of her royal identity, but is an unscrupulous reporter who is planning on selling a story on her to make a quick buck. Unsurprisingly, reader, the sweetly naive princess softens this journalist’s hardened heart, and the two find themselves falling in love.

From the very start of her career, Audrey Hepburn possessed an innate grace and regal presence – those doe eyes, that swan neck, the megawatt smile and fluent-in-five-languages accent that still beguiles through its clipped, impeccable breeding. As the impish and impetuous Princess Ann, she was gifted with a role that would make Hollywood fall in love with her (cast by director William Wyler because he wanted an “anti-Italian” star who “had no arse, no tits, no tight-fitting clothes… perfect”). The film orbits around her charisma; it is a star quality and instant likeability that few can lay claim to.

If there’s anything to niggle over, something does feel a little off with the film’s pacing. The first hour, before Peck and Hepburn get into their tourist hijinks, could have used zippier editing; the film is crying out for more time with the pair, for more of those scenes displaying the wonderful on-location shooting. It is this segment – Ann’s freedom from pomp, Joe’s loss of ego – that feel more pertinent than any sort of grand romance, and truth be told, Ann and Joe do not feel believably in love at any point. There’s a reason why the most famous images from the film are those of Hepburn licking an ice cream on the Spanish Steps with childish glee before riding a Vespa through the streets like a toddler clambering on its first tricycle. The ending is not moving because the pair are bidding adieu to a seismic affair, but because they have taught each other an important lesson about embracing the small joys of life.

It’s not surprising that audiences fell for this pleasantly sincere film, which landed in 1953 to shoo away the pessimism of noir, the misery of melodrama and the mania of screwball comedy. It is purely a rom-com, filmed with warmth and style – as sweet and inconsequential as a scoop of gelato on a summer’s day.

Roman Holiday is re-released in UK cinemas on February 3.

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