A young woman wishes to fulfill her mother’s dream of opening her own bakery in Notting Hill, London. To do this, she enlists the help of an old friend and her grandmother.
My main thought after watching Love Sarah was to hope there would be an accompanying recipe booklet. The cakes look delicious: billowing cream, shiny with glaze, plumply enticing.
I know, baking is almost fetishised now. Can you believe it’s 20 years since Nigella Lawson’s ironically-meant baking bible How To Be A Domestic Goddess was released and sent us all scurrying back to the kitchen in our pinnies? I still use mine regularly, even though it’s got more stuck-together pages than Adrian Mole’s copies of Big & Bouncy – Nigella, for all her sultry finger licking, understands why food is so powerful.
What I liked about Love Sarah is how it tries to get back to what baking means to us. Rather than showing off on Instagram (guilty!) or sabotaging frenemies’ diets by cutting them an extra large slice (so, so, guilty) baking is best when it’s about befriending, consoling, gossiping and reminiscing.
In Love Sarah it’s a way to both assuage loneliness (the customers’) and grief (the owners’) and force them to gently face their feelings. The problem is it looks like a Farrow & Ball, Waitrose magazine version of Notting Hill from about 15 years ago, an artfully distressed storyline in an artfully distressed film.
The Sarah of the title (played by Great British Bake-Off winner Candice Brown) dies in an accident early in the film, en route to the tatty shop unit in Notting Hill which she and her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) are about to turn into a bakery.
Both are bakers, though Sarah is deemed the genius, trained by Ottolenghi.
Sarah’s death leaves her estranged mother Mimi (Celia Imrie), teenage daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbut), and Isabella distraught, and also leaves Isabella with one huge financial headache. Still liable for the rent on the unit, she has to beg for her old corporate job back, until Clarissa decides that they should indeed honour Sarah’s memory by opening the bakery.
Isabella has also lost her confidence as a baker, so they advertise for a new one – and in walks Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones, who is the same age as me but looks so youthful I’m going to start rubbing raspberry roulade into my wrinkles). Matthew, Sarah’s ex-boyfriend from years before, is encouraged by a frosty Isabella to walk right back out again, but is then offered the baker’s job; though they soon discover that his talent and the three women’s love for Sarah aren’t enough on their own to bring in customers. What they need is a USP.
Eventually Mimi remembers that London is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities, but only after she literally bumps into a woman from overseas in the street. Finally they have something to differentiate themselves from their competition: bakes from around the world, to remind London’s diverse population of home.
Like a shop-bought angel cake, Love Sarah is sweet enough, looks pretty and does exactly as it says on the wrapper. There are slightly kooky locals (Bill Paterson’s inventor Felix); customers sharing off-the-cuff insights; an all-night baking session to meet a deadline; a disastrous opening.
There’s also a subplot involving spatula-crossed lovers, and another regarding the identity of Clarissa’s dad, both of which are resolved with a particularly British briskness, so we can get back to the cakes, which are indeed stunning. (They’re served on actual china, too. Nothing gets dished up on a reclaimed slate, nestling on a lily pad or in a kid’s wellington boot.)
It’s all very low key, though I’m sure there will be a market for Love Sarah‘s brand of gentle, inoffensive lifestyle chic with a dusting of repressed emotion. Imrie is its not-so-secret weapon, kneading lumpy ideas into something smoother and more sustaining.
An ex-trapeze artist (though we don’t hear enough of her background), Mimi is properly prickly rather than heart-of-gold prickly, thanks to Imrie just about managing to skirt the still-got-it, 60 year old grandma movie trope.
Their bakery’s eventual theme, of cakes to remind people of their home countries, comes across as a practical way to help people deal with loneliness amid the bustle of London – they take baking requests, learn about what they’re making and ask for help, if clunkily – rather than appropriating random puddings from around the world and claiming them as British inventions.
In some ways Love Sarah is an honest reflection of the kind of privileged Londoners whose lives just slightly touch the vigour and diversity of where they live. It highlights how many middle class professionals escape their own particular rat race in the same way: following their expensively-bought dream rather than a business plan. (They come in waves, don’t they: over-iced cupcakes, wardrobe streamlining, next it’ll be “Botox for your pet” parties.)
The itchiest, least comfortable scene is entirely needed after all that cream and sugar. Bakery customer Pascal is quietly eating his croissant when he’s strong-armed into a night out with Isabella by Clarissa, to the embarrassment of everyone concerned. It’s an excruciating first date and I winced through it (initially adding it to my list of concerns including “cakes will dry out because they don’t put covers on their display”, and BUSINESS PLAN??? in bold and underlined) – but actually it was entirely necessary to wake us all up from our carby torpor.
Love Sarah‘s rather bland ingredients, so gently incorporated, mean you could bake it the oven and call it a soufflé. Still, I did end up on my usual post-movie googling session, so am now the proud owner of an oven thermometer (my fan oven is like Chernobyl), a metal mixing bowl like the one in the movie, and some enjoyably gaudy spatulas.
PS! The credits are interspersed with more brief scenes. Nothing plot-shattering, but don’t leap up straight away and rush home like you just remembered you left a tray of brownies in the oven.
Watch the trailer now (and scroll down for the ending):
The new bakery is a success once they start making bakes from around the world. Isabella and Matthew get together, and it turns out he always actually fancied her. He takes a DNA test and he and Clarissa discover he’s not Clarissa’s dad. A young woman from Tokyo comes in and asks them to make a Japanese speciality – she loves it and requests one for a staff meeting. it later turns out she works for Time Out magazine and they want to do a feature on the bakery. The ghost of Sarah watches from outside.