Ope (Zainab Balogun), a struggling chef, decides to return to the Royal Hibiscus Hotel owned by her parents in Lagos after quitting her London job. Seeking comfort in her childhood home, things go awry when Ope begins a romance with Deji (Kenneth Okolie), a guest who just happens to be working on a deal to buy the hotel. Directed by Ishaya Bako and viewed at the Toronto International Film Festival 2017, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel has all the makings of a conventional romantic comedy, but in Bako’s hands, conventionality is at its best.
Balogun’s Ope is a delight, and the film’s stand-out. Adorably likeable, her character’s charisma comes from her independence, strength, and perseverance. This is, by all means, a women’s picture, excitingly focused on Ope’s ambitions and struggles as she navigates through family, career, and love, and feeling almost Nancy Meyers-esque with its interest in beautifully photographed foods, chic wardrobes, and the elegant hotel setting.
The central romantic drama is engaging, but so are moments of personal development: Ope’s conflicts are never simply love-based. Career struggles, from a jealous sous-chef surreptitiously over-salting her sauces to ruin her, to her inability to get a job in the racist London society which views her Nigerian cuisine as unrefined, become as much a part of Ope’s character as her romance.
With its typical rom-com story (involving a genuine meet-cute at the airport, and a top-of-the-staircase entrance before her first date with Deji, wearing a dress worthy of Audrey Hepburn), Bako’s film is predictable — but it’s never boring. It exudes charm in its heartwarming plot, which is padded out with moments of comedy from the stubborn hotel staff and Ope’s busy-body parents (played by Jide Kosoko and Rachel Oniga). Fast-paced, funny, and sweet, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel proves that playing within genre doesn’t have to result in a mediocre film.