10 Romantic films about forbidden love

Reader's Digest Editors 20 December 2021

Star-crossed lovers have fascinated audiences since the days of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. These are our 10 favourite modern tales of forbidden love.

1. Brokeback Mountain, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

The film that broke hearts across the world, and won three Academy Awards to boot. Brokeback Mountain is the story of Ennis and Jack, two ranch hands hired to spend a summer in the Sixties camping on the titular Brokeback Mountain to protect a flock of sheep from predators and poachers. 

As the pair, played beautifully by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, spend more time together, their attraction becomes undeniable—though attitudes of the time and their respective wives mean there can be nothing straightforward about their love story. 

Watch with several boxes of tissues to hand, and if you enjoy the film, consider reading the original short story it was based on. Exquisitely adapted by director Ang Lee, Annie Proulx's 1997 tale of love in the mountains can be read for free on the New Yorker website

 

2. Romeo + Juliet, 1996

Baz Luhrmann's masterpiece, this modernisation of the Shakespeare classic has all the grand tragic sweep of the original play, with gorgeous costumes and pulse-racing crime aspects to boot. 

Starring a young Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes in the titular roles, the story focuses on two lovers who can't stay away from one another, despite coming from feuding families.  

 

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019

Portrait of a Lady on Fire kiss

This French period drama tells the quietly devastating lesbian love story of the young daughter of a French countess who falls for the woman her mother commissions to secretly paint her portrait.

Their love story is tender, touching, and woefully brief—a masterclass in the power of the female gaze, and of building simmering sexual tension. Critically applauded upon its release it was nominated for both a Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award.

 

4. Loving, 2016

Based on a true story, this romantic drama focuses on the legalisation of interracial marriage in the United States, as fought for by real-life couple Richard and Mildred Loving.

Unlike many of the films in this list, this subtle tale of true love has a happy ending, as the Lovings changed the course of American history with their marriage. Actress Ruth Nega was nominated for both a Golden Globe and Academy Award for her performance as Mildred Loving. 

 

5. Lars and the Real Girl, 2007

The bizarre premise of this modern cult classic plays out in a surprisingly tender-hearted manner as town oddball Lars (Ryan Gosling) develops a romantic, but unconsumated, relationship with a sex doll named Bianca. 

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, this surprisingly innocent forbidden love flick draws its real power from its ode to kindness and compassion in the face of difference.

 

6. West Side Story, 1961

Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, this musical retelling reframes the Montagues and Capulets as rival New York Gangs, the white Jets, and the Puerto Rican Sharks.

When Tony and Maria—born into the rival gangs—meet and fall in love, their attraction is doomed from the start. 

 

7. Her, 2013

Her movie elevator scene

Truly a love story for the 21st century, Her is the timeless forbidden love story between a man and his…um… phone's operating system.

Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson give incredible turns in this boy-meets-Siri love story about loneliness, connection, and the myriad ways that technology is infiltrating our lives. 

 

8. Disobedience, 2017

Disobedience Rachel McAdams

Starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, this sapphic love story centres around a woman who returns to her strictly Orthodox Jewish community in the wake of her father's death and rekindles her romance with her childhood sweetheart Esti—who is now married to their friend Dovid. Powerful performances and beautiful cinematography make this somber forbidden love story riveting to watch. 

 

9. Brief Encounter, 1945

Brief Encounter lamp light scene

An absolute cinematic classic, Brief Encounter is in many people's minds the ultimate cinematic expression of forbidden love. Based on a Noel Coward play, it follows the tale of a passionate extramarital affair shortly before the Second World War. 

Frequently topping lists of the best films of all time, pour yourself a glass, prepare your biggest box of tissues and enjoy a slice of cinematic history. 

 

10. Vita and Virginia, 2018

Inspired by the love letters between authors Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West stars Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki in the titular roles. 

A dazzling portrait of the love affair between two brilliant young women, Vita and Virginia is stylish, moving and a stark reminder of how cruel the world once was towards same-sex love. 

 

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