Film Review: ‘Layla Majnun’ Pays Tribute to a Classical Love Poem By Celebrating and Idealising Enduring Love
While in Azerbaijan, Layla, an Indonesian scholar, falls for Samir, an admirer of her work – but her arranged marriage stands in the way.
Director: Monty Tiwa
Cast: Acha Septriasa, Reza Rahadian, Baim Wong, Beby Tsabina
Runtime: 119 minutes
Anybody who has heard of Layla and Majnun, a classical Arabic love poem written in the seventh century, will be interested to know that director Monty Tiwa has adapted the poem into a feature-length film set in modern Indonesia and Azerbaijan, Layla Majnun.
Even if you have never heard of Layla and Majnun, don’t worry. Tiwa’s film is still enjoyable, especially if you like Romeo and Juliet – that is, Tiwa has spiced the story with plenty of sweet and intimate moments between the main characters, who are a pair of star-crossed lovers bogged down by unfulfillable love.
The film centres around Layla (Acha Septriasa), an Indonesian teacher and writer who has written a best-selling novel. She is reluctantly in an arranged marriage with Ibnu Salam (Baim Wong), the son of a regent, even though she is against arranged marriages and believes in marrying for love. Before the marriage, Layla is invited to be a guest lecturer at a university in Azerbaijan. Over there, she meets Samir (Reza Rahadian), our modern Majnun who is head over heels for Layla, having read her book and is her fan.
And for a majority of the film, there is a quiet, but definite build-up of the romantic tension between Layla and Samir. Samir persistently courts Layla, not knowing about her arranged marriage. Ibnu frequently calls or chats with Layla while she is in Azerbaijan, reminding her – and the viewers – that the stakes are high for her if she doesn’t distance herself from Samir. Even then, Layla still finds herself slowly falling in love with him despite rejecting his courtship.
Without Ibnu’s intrusive presence, however, the chemistry between Layla and Samir, or between Acha Septriasa and Reza Rahadian, is undeniably electrifying. You might unwittingly swoon at Samir flaunting his historical and cultural knowledge as he brings Layla around Azerbaijan, or at how gentlemanly Samir is when he cooks up a feast specially for Layla. The whole film devotes itself to the budding romance between them. Unsurprisingly, they are perfect for each other.
And that’s to be expected of a classic and predictable love story that uses archetypal characters. Sure, Samir can be smart, charming, and talented, and Layla can be just as charming and perfect as well, with her self-confidence and intelligence. But don’t expect them to start showing any flaws or complexity, and certainly don’t expect them to have any other desires beyond marriage or love. Even though Layla has ambitions to write a second book, this ambition peters off by the end of the film.
Regardless, fans of such a fairy tale-like premise will undoubtedly resonate with the film. But if you’re not into a melodramatic and sentimental film, it may be best to steer clear. Because of the film’s lack of subplots, and its indulgence of the developing romance between Layla and Samir, the story feels slow and un-urgent at times. The overarching emotional texture feels a bit flat as well, since the film focusses too much on the tender-hearted moments between Layla and Samir.
Of course, it’s not as though the film doesn’t explore other issues. Tiwa addresses the failures of arranged marriage throughout the film, how it is more of a political tool than an institution of love. He also glimpses into political corruption, but in a clever way that weaves it into the main plot as another obstacle between Layla and Samir’s union.
But these serious issues don’t really detract the viewers’ attention from the film’s main appeal – that of a melodramatic love story with likeable main characters that you’ll find yourself rooting for. At the end of the day, Layla Majnun is Tiwa’s heartfelt tribute to an epic and timeless love poem, celebrating how redemptive love can be, especially when it endures and triumphs political and cultural barriers.
Layla Majnun is now streaming on Netflix.