Although the word ‘expat’ has gained in prominence only over the last few decades, expats themselves have existed for centuries. In film too, expats have always had a presence. One of the earliest notable examples is 1947’s Black Narcissus – the nuns in the film can certainly be described as expats, and at least part of the tension and drama arise from living in such strange, unfamiliar surroundings; a kind of culture shock that most expats today, more than 60 years later, will find very familiar.Whether you are an expat now, were one in the past, or are planning to become one in the near future, these are ten films you will probably enjoy.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson star in this brooding but funny film about an aging American actor in Tokyo for work, and a young American wife who has accompanied her photographer husband there on an assignment. The two of them happen to meet in the hotel where they are staying, and in spite of the age gap and all their other differences, they start to bond. The film follows their relationship as it progresses over the next few days, and also explores the challenges they face in dealing with the Japanese language and culture, along with some more personal issues.
Lost in Translation was a huge success at the box office and with critics too, and deservedly so – the film has a deep, subtle humor and poignancy, is visually gorgeous and captures Tokyo beautifully. It also pays more attention to language and cultural differences than most films about people abroad, and does so with a light yet intimate touch. Of all the films on this list, this one probably best captures the dual experience of homesickness and culture shock.
Under The Tuscan Sun (2003)
Based on a bestselling memoir by Frances Mayes, an American poet, writer, and professor, Under The Tuscan Sun tells the story of a writer (played by Diane Lane) who is recovering from divorce. She goes on vacation to Tuscany in Italy, only to abandon her tour bus, buy a villa, and live there. The film follows her as she settles into her new home and life, gets acquainted with the locals, – including some particularly unusual characters! – and deals with all the challenges that come her way.
Under The Tuscan Sun is another standout, unique film on this list, in that it captures a certain kind of classic expat dream perfectly – in fact, almost too perfectly, to the point where it’s rather formulaic and predictable. It also glosses over many of the challenges that any expat knows only too well, or at best touches upon them superficially. The film has received a fair bit of criticism over the years, and is often dismissed, but we say never mind all that – it’s still a wonderfully light, bright, cheerful, and charming film that will either remind you of why you are an expat or make you want to move abroad.
The Painted Veil (2006)
The Painted Veil is based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel from 1925. This 2006 film isn’t even the first adaptation of the story – there were two previous attempts in 1934 and 1957 – but it’s probably the best. Edward Norton plays an earnest but dull expat doctor named Walter Fane, who marries a vivacious London socialite named Kitty Garsten, played by Naomi Watts. When the two return to Shanghai, they find that they aren’t a particularly good match for each other, and Kitty proceeds to have an affair. When Walter finds out, he takes what is essentially a punishment posting for his wife, forcing her to accompany him to a remote village in China to help deal with a cholera epidemic. In the middle of all the sickness and death, cut off from the world they know, their loveless and now bitter marriage will either break for good or be healed.
This clearly isn’t a very cheerful film for the most part, but it’s a beautiful depiction of the Chinese countryside and expat life there in the early 20th century, and an equally beautiful exploration of a (probably) doomed romance.
A Good Year (2006)
A Good Year comes from the very reliable pair of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe. The film is admittedly light and superficial, and even predictable in many ways, but it’s still a charming, beautiful, entertaining, and ultimately satisfying film. Crowe plays Max Skinner, a British bonds trader who inherits his uncle Henry’s vineyard in Provence. Max was once close to his uncle and spent a good part of his childhood at the vineyard, but in spite of this, as an adult, he seems to have no emotional attachment to anything or anyone. He goes to France determined to quickly sell the estate, return home, and get back to work. However, there are complications, and Max finds himself stuck in Provence longer than he expected, forced to slow down.
Like Under The Tuscan Sun, with which it has many similarities, this straightforward tale could have been bland and dull, but here too, the lead actor (with a good bit of help from Marion Cotillard, and of course the beauty of the landscape in southern France) lifts it tremendously, making it a charming, funny, feel-good bit of cinema.
The Last King of Scotland
This is another film that isn’t all bright and cheerful; in fact, it’s probably the most intense and disturbing film on the list, even though it is in its own way uplifting and hopeful to the extent that it tracks the awakening of the conscience of one of the main characters.
The Last King of Scotland follows the life of a Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (partly fictional and partly a composite of several real people, and played by James McAvoy) as he moves from Edinburgh to Uganda and becomes the personal physician of General Idi Amin. Garrigan is initially trusting and hopeful, believing that Amin can actually bring about the peace and development that the country so desperately needs. However, as part of the dictator’s inner circle, he learns about more and more personal and political developments that cannot be reconciled with this vision, and he gradually comes to the realization that not only is the country in danger of ruin, but his own position is extremely precarious. This is a tense, gripping film, with some fantastic performances from both Whittaker and McAvoy, and a great deal of beauty in the middle of all the death and destruction.
Casablanca probably needs no recommendation, but on the other hand, perhaps it has turned into one of those films that is often talked about but rarely watched. In any case, this film is probably The Classic Expat Film, so we felt we simply couldn’t leave it out. Humphrey Bogart plays Rick Blaine, an American expat and a nightclub owner with a patchy past in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. Ingrid Bergman plays his ex-lover, who is in town with her husband, a rebel and a fugitive. The two of them need Rick’s help to escape from the country and the Germans who are after them. However, there are of course complications. War-time intrigue, drama, romance, humour, a choice between love and duty, some unforgettable lines of dialogue, and an iconic theme song: Casablanca has it all. Oh, and did we mention it stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman?
The King and I (1956)
The King and I is another classic, but it isn’t often thought of as a film about expats. It is though – Anna Leonowens, a British widow (played by Deborah Kerr), goes to Bangkok in 1862 as a governess for the children of the King of Siam (played by Yul Brynner). There is of course a massive culture clash, plenty of misunderstanding and stubbornness, but then a gradual softening of stances and feelings, and even a blossoming of romance. The film has a long trail of adaptations before and after it – it’s based on a 1944 novel, which itself was based on the memoirs of an Anglo-Indian woman who was in fact a royal governess in Siam in the 1860s. From the novel came the 1946 drama film starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, and then the 1951 stage musical, on which this 1956 film is based. Later, there was even a TV series, an animated film, and most recently in 1999, yet another film, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. The 1956 film is probably the best, but if you get the chance, you might want to try one of the others too.
Right from the start, there are elements that any expat will be familiar with – Anna has read a book on Siam and thinks she knows the customs and is prepared for life there; however, the reality is quite different, and her book hasn’t prepared her for much. The period setting and the royalty factor of course take things to another level entirely, but at its core, it’s not a stretch to say that it’s still a film about an expat dealing with culture shock.
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
This is a sweet, charming, and unusual film about a bunch of British pensioners who each move to Jaipur, India to live in a retirement hotel, based mainly on the hotel’s website. Of course when they arrive, they find that the real thing is not quite the same as what was advertised. The film follows them as they deal with each other, their new (rather disappointing) surroundings, their hosts at the hotel, and other local people. With an amazing cast that includes Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith, along with an intelligent, funny script, this is a wonderful and heartwarming film.
A Passage to India
This one is another classic that goes all the way back to 1924, which is when the film is set and when the novel it was based on was first published. The expats here are of course not mere expats but colonials, a fact that underlies much of the drama and tension in the film. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) have come to India from England, where they form a sort of friendship with Dr Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee), a well educated, somewhat westernized local. When the three of them take a touristy outing to visit some caves and see the countryside, things go wrong and Aziz is accused of trying to rape Adela.
A Passage to India is generally acknowledged as one of the best book-to-screen adaptations ever, and in fact among the greatest films ever made. In spite of its epic scale and the vast landscapes, it never loses its thoughtfulness and intimacy.
The Before… Trilogy
Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight – these three classic films make up one of the best, most-loved romantic trilogies ever.
The first film begins on a train from Budapest to Vienna, where two young strangers, Jesse and Celine (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively), meet and strike up a conversation. They hit it off so well that they spend the night wandering the streets of Vienna and their conversation lasts till the next morning, when Jesse must catch a flight back home to the US. The next film picks the story up nine years later, and the final film returns to the couple after another nine years. Each film is essentially an extended conversation, but the conversation is so scintillating, the growing, deepening relationship between the two characters is so mesmerizing, and the city in which each film is set (Vienna, Paris, and then Messenia) is so beautiful that it all works perfectly.
Those are our movie recommendations – what are your favourite films about being an expat? Let us know in the comments!