“The Last Letter from Your Lover” (2021) – Director Augustine Frizzell’s film – based on Jojo Moyes’ 2008 novel with the same name – is an old-fashioned romance.
Well, half of it is.
“The Last Letter from Your Lover” is rooted in present-day London, but it flashes back 56 years to 1965 to the same city, when men sported suits and ties to step out of their houses to run random 10-minute errands, and women strived to look like Jackie Kennedy or Marlo Thomas. Perhaps not Ms. Thomas, because “That Girl” didn’t premiere until 1966. Anyways, social media wasn’t molded through Facebook or Instagram but via gossip at bar tables, dance halls, elegant dinners, and fancy lunch dates. If people from all walks of life couldn’t meet in person, they picked up the telephone or wrote letters to connect.
Letters? Remember those? On a personal note, my grandmothers, rest their souls, regularly sent them to their grandkids.
For Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) and Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner), letters are their primary mode of communication when they aren’t together. Jennifer – married to a wealthy socialite, Lawrence (Joe Alwyn), with Snidely Whiplash’s personality but Michael Caine’s looks – is having an affair with Anthony, a crackerjack newspaperman at The London Chronicle.
(For the record, Caine was 32 years young in 1965, so there you go.)
They sneak around when Lawrence is called away on business, which seems like every day, every hour, and every minute. Jennifer and Anthony aren’t hiding their feelings. Screenwriters Nick Payne and Esta Spalding give the pair carte blanche to express them way out in the open, including long drives and walks in the South of France, as well as meetups at home base, The Swinging City.
Even though Anthony, straight away, plans to destroy a marriage through this getting-pretty-serious fling, their relationship isn’t tawdry. It’s polite and cordial. Thus, Anthony – who nicknames himself “Your Boot” – frequently scribes his thoughts down on paper, and Jennifer is the recipient of the most cliché driven lovesick verses this side of “Casablanca” (1941), “The Notebook” (2004), or “Jerry Maguire” (1996). Scratch the latter because Anthony does not compose “You complete me.”
Thank you for that, Tony!
Instead, we are subjected to hyper-familiar texts.
“I fear our desires will destroy us.”
“Yes, it’s scary, but living a lie is worse.”
“I know it’s hard to hear the words, but I love you.”
It’s not difficult for Jennifer, as she longs to open these letters like a kid on Christmas morning. For those who avoid romance novels, not so much. For those who love Jane Austen’s and Nicholas Sparks’ stories, the aforementioned love notes may spark head shakes and eye-rolls because we’ve all heard them, at least at the movies.
Then again, maybe that’s the point.
Only 50 percent of “The Last Letter from Your Lover” is set in the 1960s, as Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones), a plucky The London Chronicle reporter, fills our time during the other half of the 103-minute film during 2021. Whatever grandiose formalities exist in the past, Ellie’s present is all grab-a-croissant-and-coffee-on-the-run, random hookups, and throwing herself into work when she’s not running late for the office. That’s modern life for millions, or is it billions?
This critic didn’t read Moyes’ book, but perhaps she, Frizzell, Payne, Spalding offer such a cliché-driven past because it’s simply a device to compare to our present. Well, they are wildly successful in that regard. What a clash of extremes! Although one can’t imagine all Baby Boomers were as prim and proper as Jennifer and Anthony back in the day. Still, there’s a massive divergence in this movie between the two periods, including the most prominent medium: correspondence.
Yesterdecade’s method of courting correspondence – using thoughtful, considerate decorum – is vastly different than today’s “LOL”, “idk”, or “Meet in front of the Starbucks on 7th Ave. at 6.”
Look, not everything in bygone eras was better, but Frizzell and the others certainly drive home that lovers invested considerable time to express their feelings in more artful and attentive ways than we do today. Anyways, Ellie’s main function is to investigate the origin of Anthony’s letters, which she discovers through random chance at the newspaper. She attempts to solve a mystery after reading one dispatch.
She exclaims, “I never read anything quite it!”
We don’t have Six Degrees of Antony O’Hare here. Still, the script delivers a couple of surprises, and the movie’s third act is the best chapter that may or may not make up for the first hour-plus of shrug-inducing familiarities of every old-school rom-com that you’ve ever seen.
However, Nabhaan Rizwan is awfully good here as Rory, a thoroughly likable archives manager. He works with Ellie to track down the sources of an ever-increasing number of almost-anonymous letters, and he and Jones have snappy, delightful chemistry. Could this pragmatic Steady Eddie – with more depth than first revealed – be a match for the elusive Ms. Haworth?
Maybe, but you’ll have to watch “The Last Letter from Your Lover” to know for sure, but that also means sitting through Woodley’s and Turner’s on-screen minutes too. By comparison, they share no chemistry, none at all, and that’s a problem.
“The Last Letter from Your Lover” even has a proverbial I’ll-wait-on-the-train-platform-for-you moment. However, since it’s so challenging to care about Jennifer’s and Anthony’s relationship, we only observe the said moment rather than experience it.
Conversely, the train platform scenes in the fairly recent flicks “Carlito’s Way” (1993) and “The Secret in Their Eyes” (2009) carry huge emotional impacts because of their layered, intricate plotlines and the leads’ lovely romantic harmonies. In “Last Letter”, Woodley and Turner are two capable actors who studied the period’s conventionalism and checked all the boxes as an attractive, pleasing couple but, unfortunately, don’t have that magic together.
Not only does this movie look pleasing, but it’s straight-up gorgeous. Costume designer Anna Robbins, production designer James Merifield, art director Alice Sutton, set decorator Clare Andrade, and cinematographer George Steel absolute transport us to this high-end mod world, and their collective cinematic results – at times – rival Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (2009) or Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven” (2002).
If only the movie didn’t feel as cliché as a mattress sale on Boxing Day, or Americans learning only one language. I’m American, so I speak (pardon the pun) from experience.
Look, “The Last Letter from Your Lover” is supposed to be speaking the language of love. Instead, it declares: our movie is breezy, harmless semi-fun on a Saturday afternoon. That’s not quite enough to recommend, but I wouldn’t fault you for falling for this movie, even though we’ve heard, seen, and read it before.
⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Augustine Frizzell
Written by: Nick Payne and Esta Spalding, based on Jojo Moyes’ book
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Felicity Jones, Joe Alwyn, and Nabhaan Rizwan
Runtime: 103 minutes