Director: Augustine Frizzell Starring: Felicity Jones, Shailene Woodley, Callum Turner, Nabhaan Rizwan, Joe Alwyn Running Time: 109 minutes
There is an art to the particular kind of romance that we call the melodrama, and though some associate the term with gaudy, over the top antics, the melodrama has a rich history in cinema that is tapped into far too rarely these days. True melodrama, human sense and sensibilities brought to life more largely on the big screen, has brought us some of our greatest cinematic storytellers, from Douglas Sirk to Pedro Almódovar. We think of the blockbuster as all action, crash, bang, wham all immersed in IMAX, in part because that’s 90% of what we get at the multiplex these days. If action and superhero movies spark our excitement for immense physical feats and kinetic storytelling though, movies like The Last Letter From Your Lover can provide alternative, and engaging, popcorn movie extravagance, with immense yearning, electrifying feats of feeling to feast on.
The Last Letter From Your Lover is based on the novel by bestselling author Jojo Moyes, a seasoned storyteller in the romance genre whose work has been adapted for movies several times before. It’s a story that features plenty of big, enticing hooks for romance fans, providing even more bang for your book with two separate story threads. Unlucky in love journalist Ellie (Felicity Jones) stumbles across a series of letters in her newspaper’s archives that bring her into a world of forbidden romance – loving letters addressed to a ‘J’ from someone signing off as ‘Boot’. She’s quickly enamoured by their passion and needs to know more, a journey that brings her closer and closer to the paper’s archivist and her unwitting sidekick Rory (Nabhaan Rizwaan). Meanwhile, we see the story of ‘J’ and ‘Boot’ and their amorous affair in the 1960s, as socialite Jennifer (Shailene Woodley) meets another journalist Anthony (Callum Turner) while he profiles her wealthy husband (played by Joe Alwyn). Hubbie is away often though – busy working, being a prick and looking like Prince George in a big trenchcoat – and in the balmy and beautiful Riviera, Jennifer and Anthony find they have much in common; a way with words, an appreciation of literature, and fancying the arse off each other.
Adapting these intersecting storylines is a challenge for screenwriters Nick Payne and Esta Spalding. The framing device of Ellie and Rory looking back and learning more of the other story definitely seems most suitable for a book, but that’s not to say the presentation on screen doesn’t have plenty that works well. Without being too heavy-handed, we see how Ellie and Rory’s passions are aroused by the story they uncover, their own attraction obvious to us but flying under each other’s radar. Director Augustine Frizzell showed a promising flair for directing performers in the A24 flick Never Goin’ Back , and here pulls off an impressive balancing act pulling very different performances out of her double couples.
Ellie jokingly laments early on that romance was better in J and Boot’s day – all passionate penmanship, no eggplant emojis – but the difference in direction between the two timelines draws a less overt and richer comparison. The Ellie/Rory romance is a romcom to the letter, meet cutes and misunderstandings, banter, charm and an easy going chemistry between Rizwaan and Jones. Jennifer and Anthony are more fervent, smouldering, their love a classic melodrama – missed meetings, withheld feelings and even amnesia. Woodley and Turner are perfectly sincere and heartfelt, their expressions unsubtly but openly crumbling at every disappointment and denial. Turner, a cad in Emma, here is gutwrenched, his and Woodley’s chemistry may seem more stilted, but really it’s more halting and hesitant, the kind of performances you might see in characters from a movie from the era. The camera work shifts in the timelines accordingly as needed, with richer, deeper colours and softer lighting in the past. The music swells, the cuts are longer, the better to capture the longing looks. Back in the present the pace is snappier, the lighting flat, sitcom like. The stakes may not seem as high, but ultimately both pairings are in pursuit of the same things, right? J and Boot may be more classically romantic, and it’s easy to be swept along with them, but equally our modern characters are more at ease, more direct, and quicker to open up. There are some structural hiccups but the two strands of the story are nicely in conversation with each other.
(3.5 / 5)
With a strong heart and some well-pitched performances, The Last Letter From Your Lover delivers. Its classic sense of romantic style provides a welcome alternative to a summer of explosions and cynicism, the kind of passion, served well, that should be a staple of any cinematic diet.