Synopsis: A journalist in present-day London reads a cache of old love letters and tries to find the lovers. (Streaming on Netflix.)
If you’re reading this now, there’s a good chance that you are familiar with the romance classic, The Notebook (2004). Wasn’t Noah and Allie’s story set in the 1940’s sweet and dramatic? And weren’t Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams fantastic as the lovers? But then they had the present day stuff with the old folks shambling around the nursing home. Wasn’t it dull?
I’m suspicious of narratives involving a present day story on top of the main story, especially those in which a present-day protagonist (often a real sad sack trying to make sense of their life) researches a long-ago love affair. Said affair is hinted at when, for instance, an earring lost in the cushions of an old sofa is discovered. This looks like a thoughtfully selected gift for a lover. How tragic that the pair was separated!
In The Last Letter from Your Lover, based on the book by Jojo Moyes, a sad sack London journalist, Allie (Felicity Jones) is trying to make sense of her life when she stumbles upon a love letter circa 1965. Ms. Jones’ character is introduced to us hungover in a hookup’s bed. She’s recovering from a bad breakup. I wondered if her ex was a cheater or gaslighter, but no, the relationship just sort of ran its course.
Her day-to-day is pretty routine until she gets the go ahead from her editor to work on a story about these anonymous lovers. She heads to the newspaper’s archives where an attractive nerd, archives manager Rory ( Nabhaan Rizwan) helps Allie in her research. As I’m sure you can imagine, someone sipping coffee whilst reading letters is fairly dull, so it’s nice that at least her interactions with Rory are leavened with humor.
The real attraction here is the 1965 story starring Shailene Woodley as Jennifer Stirling and Joe Alwyn as her husband, Laurence Stirling. Jennifer has just returned from the hospital to her posh home in the company of her toffish husband. We see her examine her pretty face in the mirror, focusing on a thin scar on her cheek. (Later on in the movie, the scar seems to disappear just like Harry Potter’s scar.) Meanwhile Laurence is seen tossing a letter into his desk drawer.
If you are watching this movie because you really love movies about letters, you are in luck because characters are constantly reading letters, writing letters, hiding letters and looking for letters. More on that later…
I can’t resist discussing the interesting actors in the movie, by which I mean, mostly their personal lives. First, I will take the high ground and let you know that I admire the respective works of Shailene Woodley and Joe Alwyn. Shai burst on the scene, being excellent in the excellent The Descendants as a teen dealing with her mother’s demise.
More importantly, Shai is an advocate of sunning one’s vagina, screaming upon waking and eating clay. She reports that she has spent years studying herbalism and makes her own “medicines.” When not making her own chaga mushroom tinctures, she finds time for environmental activism. Shai protested the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and was arrested for criminal trespass and engaging in a riot in 2016. That sounds like a plotline in her Divergent movie series! Shai reports that she gathers her own spring water from the mountains, so I can see her being concerned about crude oil contamination of ground water for Native Americans.
Re. Joe Alwyn, his longtime girlfriend, singer- songwriter extraordinaire Taylor Swift is right about him being gorgeous with his ocean blue eyes as described in tribute to his looks on “Gorgeous.” Joe’s also a good actor in whatever guy-in-the-past he is playing: a Vietnam veteran in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a vicious slaver in Harriet or a traitorous consort in Mary Queen of Scots. This time around he plays another bastard; his Laurence character lies and condescends to his wife on a regular basis.
I like it when Taylor Swift writes about her & Joe. In “King of My Heart” Tay-tay sings of how he’s the one she’s been waiting for and confides in “Lover” that she’s highly suspicious that everyone who sees him, wants him. Well, not Shailene! Uh, that is, her character in The Last Letter from Your Lover.
Shai/Jennifer likes Anthony O’Hare aka Boot (dumb nickname), a financial journalist who interviews her rich husband. Callum Turner, so vile in War &Peace, is a good enough actor, but the chemistry doesn’t really spark between him and Shailene. Maybe she is too busy thinking about her fiance, American football player Aaron Rodgers. They have a Disney vlog in which they enthuse about the snacks in Epcot and the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge part of the park.
So… I promised I would talk more about letters, including of course the famous “last letter from your lover.” But, first, you should know that besides having to worry about now having to take two seconds to cover her facial scar with makeup, our heroine has lost her memory in the car accident that landed her in hospital! This is perfect; amnesia is such a great setup for gothic fiction or soap operas.
Shai/Jen tells her best friend that she barely remembers anything, to which her friends replies, you have a perfect life and a handsome husband. Like what more could she need to know, darling? But within a few days she is perusing her house’s library and the famous letter falls out of a book. The letter writer “B” begs her to meet him at a train platform and run away to New York. Okay, I’m all for true love, but I see a problem: You can’t get from London to New York via train. There is no trans-Atlantic chunnel now, and, to the best of my knowledge there wasn’t one in 1965. But Shai/Jen sees no problem and quickly starts tearing through the books and upending the house looking for more letters like she is desperately searching for a lost herbal recipe cure for severe menstrual cramps.
Then -this is exciting – the movie goes back in time to when Shai/Jen met her lover and gets into how she got in a car wreck. Like I mentioned earlier, Ms. Woodley looks distracted in the movie, but the cast got to film in the Balearic Islands (filling in for the Riviera), so that’s a good reason to sign on right there. Joe does seem a lot more wedded to his priggish character, who doesn’t have much to do. This is good, because I know that he needs time to write songs with Taylor Swift. He really does deserve a shout out for his efforts, in the guise of “William Bowery,” co-writing “Betty,” “Exile,” “Champagne Problems,” “Coney Island,” and “Evermore.” I only wish that he had had time to sing Bon Iver’s part of “Exile.” But he does have this movie career to think of…
We get to see Shai & Joe vacationing in semi-tropical splendor. It’s really hard to believe Shai in a period piece, but she does her best in Jackie Kennedy sheath dresses and a Priscilla Presley wig of the I-Just-Married-Elvis-In-Las Vegas vintage. And the hats! While Felicity Jones’ character gets stuck in drab beanies, Shai gets to wear the biggest, most holiday-ish sun hats.
Shai/Jen’s husband is negligent, always rushing off to attend to business deals, so she is left to her own devices day and night. After the financial journalist, Anthony’s interview is concluded with her husband, she invites him to spend the day sailing on her yacht. She asks the attractive, flirty man if he’s ever been in love and he asks her the same. This is the hook, audience: although she is married and he’s romanced many women, neither has ever been truly in love! Not til now.
Before you know it, they are basically dating; strolling in gardens, picknicking and dancing in nightclubs. One day they get caught in a rainstorm and have to dash back to the shelter of her car. They laugh with delight at the absurdity of it all and then get still for just a moment, gazing at each other, before mutual pouncing forward to kiss, kiss and kiss some more.
Back in London, they never for a moment rethink the folly of their affair because, as their letters to each other tell us, no one has ever been more in love than our lovers.
Then the movie shifts back to present day with Felicity Jones maybe learning to love again with the archivist as she uncovers letter after trite letter. I mean, her “story” is basically transcribing these letters and concluding with a couple of pithy remarks about love. Her editor –non spoiler alert here– declares the piece fantastic!
I have to admit, that although the movie is about as deep as tea spilled in a saucer, I wanted to see if Shai’s character would recover her memory and get back together with the guy who wasn’t Joe Alwyn. It was sort of fun to yell at the characters on screen for being too stupid to check a newspaper or make a simple phone call to confirm dubious info given to them.
Quick note re. Callum Turner: the Internet tells us that he was a self-reported stoner for several years and that he dated fellow actor Vanessa Kirby — so good as Princess Margaret on The Crown. But really, he’s going to have to start Instagramming pix of himself at Disney or writing songs with a famous girlfriend if he wants to hold our interest in tepid love stories.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: A feather light diversion, but good actors.
Humor Highlight: The husband’s imperiousness, eg., while in France he snaps at a French-speaking waiter, “English!”