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Polite Society review (Sundance 2023) - a surprising action-comedy

An unusual new movie blending British humour with Kung-Fu and set in London's South Asian community makes for a mostly winning combination.

Polite Society

Our Verdict

An original and surprising blend of action and comedy within the setting of London's South Asian community. Priya Kansara makes a big impression in her starring role of Ria and the dialogue is extremely funny. The third act flies off the rails somewhat, but that's not enough to sink this highly enjoyable crowd-pleaser.

Bringing together several seemingly unconnected elements into a melting pot of a movie is always a risky little game, but can work wonders. A new movie combines the parental pressures and furore surrounding an upcoming wedding in London’s South Asian community, with action movie sequences (specifically martial arts), and a hilarious script that showcases the best of British humour. And it mostly manages to pull off this tricky high-wire act.

Polite Society is the feature-film debut of Nida Manzoor – who created the comedy series We Are Lady Parts – which is about a group of young Muslim women who form a punk band. Priya Kansara plays Ria, a high school student who dreams of becoming a stuntwoman.

Ria narrates the movie via the letters she writes to the real-life leading stuntwoman in the UK – Eunice Hurthart. Her sister Lena (The Umbrella Academy‘s Ritu Arya) has dropped out of art school and returned home, and her mother quickly starts eyeing the eligible bachelor sons of her friends.

When Lena does become engaged to a suspiciously perfect handsome and rich Pakistani doctor, Ria becomes convinced that she must save her sister from entering her ‘Stepford wife cardigan phase’ so she doesn’t give up on being an artist. Ria hatches several elaborate plans – with her best friends (played by the brilliant Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri) to try to prevent the wedding. When they all fail, they hatch the most audacious plan yet – a wedding heist, in which they will kidnap Lena.

The first half of Polite Society is definitely the strongest. The bond between sisters Ria and Lena is well built up, with Lena helping Ria film her stunt videos. They have the usual arguments that sisters do, but also support each other’s passions and ambitions. It’s only once Ria meets Salim (Akshay Khanna) that their relationship starts to unravel.

We see Ria at school, where she has rivals including a school bully who must be dealt with via a Kung-Fu death match. The action sequences are cued up on screen with yellow titles straight out of 70s Kung-Fu movies with a healthy dollop of spaghetti westerns. There will be inevitable comparisons with Edgar Wright’s movies – especially Scott Pilgrim – and the editing and sound effects certainly feel influenced by Wright.

Polite Society

At least Ria has two best mates to help her school bullies, as well as the increasing challenge of Lena’s impending nuptials. Beh and Bruccoleri are definitely highlights of the film, and they get some of the funniest dialogue. It has been an absolute joy to hear idiosyncratic and completely non-sensical British insults being bandied about in Scrapper, Rye Lane and Polite Society at Sundance this year.

The other thing Polite Society has in common with those two other movies is that it’s not afraid of colour. The costume and production design are mostly fantastic – from the more grounded details of Ria and Lena’s bedrooms, to the lavish wedding venue. The only misstep is Ria’s school, where presumably a bunch of Sixth Formers (between 16 and 18 years old, but played by actresses who certainly look older) are forced to wear pinafores (something that is only seen at Primary Schools in the UK). The school also has a touch of the same disease that afflicts Sex Education and Heartstopper – where it looks way more American than it should.

Polite Society

The main villain of the piece is Salim’s mum (Nimra Bucha) – and she gets to have plenty of scenery-chewing fun as the soap opera style nightmare mother-in-law. Unfortunately, when the film’s main twist is revealed, though, things start to go off the rails fairly quickly. The film has juggled its many different elements well in the first half, but as the wedding day looms, things spiral out of control and get a bit too ridiculous.

The premise of the film was strong enough – and the way the stunt sequences were interwoven was done really well to begin with – it didn’t need a silly evil supervillain plotting something heinous on top of that. Ria’s motivations for the wedding heist were already there, adding in way over-the-top stakes is unnecessary.

Polite Society

While it is a bit of a shame that Polite Society jumps the shark somewhat in the final act, there is plenty here to enjoy and have fun with. The dialogue is extremely funny and the performances are winning, with Kansara making a big impression and carrying the film. It will be exciting to see what Mazoor does next.

Polite Society will be released in theatres in the UK on April 7, 2023 and in the US on April 28, 2023. It’s sure to be a crowd-pleasing hit.