Let us just get it out of the way.
The Royal Hibiscus Hotel, the latest project from EbonyLife films is a romantic comedy. It isn’t deep, does not grapple with major life issues and has no pretensions to paying service to anything serious beyond securing a happily-ever-after ending for its lead character, Ope Adeniyi. Better if she is played by the eternally appealing Zainab Balogun.
But there is the argument that romantic love is one of life’s sweetest aspirations and to go through life without indulging in the thrill of young love at least once, may be the greatest tragedy of them all. The Royal Hibiscus Hotel appeals to the hopeless romantics in all of us and continues in the EbonyLife tradition of packaging for entertainment, the aspirational lives of the Lagos jet set.
This time around, audiences are asked to root for Ms. Balogun’s Ope, a child of privilege facing some tough times in a foreign land. Unable to cut it as a chef in the London culinary scene, she returns to Nigeria to consider her options. The film makes it quite clear Ope’s inability to blossom in London is due to no fault of hers. She has the talent, and the zeal, makes extra effort to present her work- sometimes to the chagrin of her insecure boss,- but her dream of starting her own kitchen is constantly undercut by sexist and (maybe) racist gatekeepers.
Ope is in a position to risk it all and board the next flight back home following a particularly frustrating episode at work. She is the heir to the family business, a quaint, grand hotel located in the center of Lagos.
The Royal Hibiscus Hotel is one of those legacy businesses that have found themselves stuck in reverse. The colonial era architecture that houses the business competes with the expansive property and strategic portraits of Elizabeth II for a typically Lagosian depiction of old money gone to seed.
Ope arrives to find that all isn’t quite well with the Royal Hibiscus Hotel. The elder Adeniyi (Jide Kosoko) hasn’t run the business so well. His lapses in judgement are described charmingly as a fetish for investing in people but it is hard to see what results his efforts have yielded. The hotel staff are far from motivated and infrastructure is falling apart. The receptionist prefers flirting with guests to working the hotel line, and the head chef is a drunken disaster.
Faced with mounting bills, Chief Adeniyi, without his family’s knowledge, is considering a lucrative buyout offer from Deji, a ‘’young Dangote’’ who also happens to come in the very dashing form of Kenneth Okolie. Deji and his business partner, Martin (Deyemi Okanlawon) pay a scoping visit to the hotel on the very same week that Ope arrives. Sparks fly and a disastrous professional outing for Ope soon becomes the starting point for a charming love affair.
There is really nothing new that The Royal Hibiscus Hotel has to say about young love, but the screenplay makes for a nice touch by showcasing the durability of long term love, as seen in the divergent marriages of The Adeniyis and that of their PDA prone clients, Augustina and Richard, played by real life couple Joke Silva and Olu Jacobs.
From the moment Ope and Deji meet cute at London’s Heathrow airport, their trajectory pretty much plays out as expected. They will play coy, fall for each other, have some obstruction come in between them, then find a way to resolve said challenge.
The screenplay credited to the foursome of Ishaya Bako, Yinka Ogun, Nicole Brown and Debo Oluwatuminu seems to realize that the central romance is a little too thin to hang the entire film on, and swells to accommodate the elder Adeniyi’s- particularly the matriarch, Rose (a colorful Rachel Oniga)- and Chika, the saucy front desk officer (a game Lala Akindoju).
Directed by Ishaya Bako (Road to Yesterday) who deploys a careful and light handed approach to the material, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel ticks all the boxes, almost to the point of cliché, and is quite content with positioning itself as the shameless Nollywood re-imagination of a million Hollywood rom-coms.
The stakes are so low, almost nonexistent and the little dramatic tensions that make it to the screen appear forced. When it comes down to the wire and Deji has to convince Ope to stay with him, he is handicapped with some of the most futile lines uttered by someone in love. Little wonder Ope catches the next flight.
The mandatory shot of the lead actress walking down the stairs, a vision in red, may not inspire much faith in Bako’s ability, but he has a way of putting together a scene to make it visually engaging in the least. An aerial shot of a lavish rooftop dinner at the Eko Hotels is sure to make romantics swoon. Secondary characters are introduced and dispensed with immediately and the ones who stay aren’t treated as fairly as possible.
If there is one aspect of The Royal Hibiscus Hotel that sings constantly, it is Funmi Victor-Okigbo’s production design. Playing around with screaming colors and soft pastels, she outs herself as a student of Wes Anderson, particularly his collaborative work with Adam Stockhausen in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. But where Anderson’s set design and his characters are almost inseparable, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel interiors sometimes come across as show-offy.
If The Royal Hibiscus Hotel had arrived half a decade earlier, it might have made more of an impression, Lord knows Nollywood needs more films that are as capably made. But Nollywood has also shown with Isoken and with the first Wedding Party that efficient romantic comedies can be churned out reliably. The key is to at least try to expand the model beyond simple Valentine’s Day bait.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.