To be sure, Roman Holiday is a well-made movie, based on a clever, but simple, premise by legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, directed to great effect by the legendary William Wyler, with striking visual style (most notably on display in the scooter sequence) following an exciting romp through the city of Rome, and featuring a charming performance by the debonair Gregory Peck. However, without question, Roman Holiday succeeds largely on the back of the breathtakingly, achingly endearing Audrey Hepburn.
Look at Hepburn’s face – her big doe eyes, her elfin ears, her impeccably shaped eyebrows, eyelashes that curl just so. She’s just beautiful, there’s no other word for it. She’s styled so charmingly, and the film goes to great lengths to show her slowly shedding her rigid court manner over the course of the film, just as she sheds her long hair, and it’s almost jarring at the end of the film to see her back in her regal attire.
Hepburn also delivers a standout performance; she has a natural radiance and charisma beyond her looks, a magnetism, and warmth that she communicates quite subtly. There’s no one line reading or moment that stands out but taken in sum it’s a striking performance, filled with nuance.
Peck, on the other hand, doesn’t change an inch over the course of the film – he’s unyielding and ceaseless. At the start of the film, he’s a bit down-on-his-luck, sure, and it certainly seems like he’s interested in exploiting an advantageous situation for his own personal benefit, but it becomes clear quite quickly that he’s far too forthright and honest to actually follow through on such a thing when push comes to shove. There’s a reason Peck went on to win an Oscar for the hefty task of appearing on screen as the paragon of virtue, Atticus Finch.
A lesser film would have a more happy ending, but this is no such lesser film, and instead, we get a bittersweet ending. It’s not the ending we want, but we know it’s the only way this story could have ended; its inevitability makes it all the more powerful – this is not some cheap fantasy where everything works out perfectly, where true love prevails, where the average Joe gets the princess.