The new Netflix romantic drama “The Last Letter From Your Lover” strolls across three(ish) timelines to tell the story of two lovers who embark on one illicit love affair during the summer of 1965. Bouncing back and forth between the then and now, “The Last Letter” sets out to capture the look and feel of a classic Hollywood romance while at the same time contrasting it with a budding modern love story. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but there’s just enough spark to keep us caring.
Directed by Augustine Frizzell and written by Nick Payne and Esta Spalding, the film is an adaptation of a 2012 novel of the same name by Jojo Moyes. The time-hopping narrative begins in 1965 London. Jenny (Shailene Woodley) sits in the car gazing out the window with a look of poorly veiled apprehension and uncertainty. A scar on the left side of her face runs from the corner of her eye to mid-cheek, hinting at the story we’re about to be told. “Everything’s going to be fine darling” says her seemingly concerned husband Larry (Joe Alwyn).
We learn Jenny is returning home from the hospital following a serious car accident. In addition the the scar, the wreck also left her with short-term memory loss. But when she stumbles upon a letter tucked away in a book, pieces of her memory slowly start falling back into place. She begins to recall details of a romantic relationship she had with a young writer named Anthony (Callum Turner). Soon she’s searching everywhere for more letters that can help her remember this man and what he meant to her.
Jump ahead to current day. Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones) is a features writer for the London Chronicle who comes across an old love letter while researching for another story. It’s addressed to someone called “J” from someone going by “Boot”. Captivated, Ellie begins looking for more letters, enlisting the help of the company’s jittery archivist Rory (played with just the right amount of humor and warmth by Nabhaan Rizwan).
Now stay with me, Jenny in 1965 and Ellie in the present day begin pasting together the romance behind the letters. The movie hops back six months prior to Jenny’s car accident when she and Larry are in the French Riviera. There she meets Anthony O’Hare who’s in town to write a piece on her husband. Hurt by her husband’s belittlement and neglect, Jenny sees the opposite in Anthony and soon the two are engaged in a whirlwind affair across the beautiful French countryside.
As you can probably guess (or if you saw the trailer) all of storylines eventually converge with various degrees of success. For the most part Frizzell holds it all together (the time-jumping is a little clunky but never becomes convoluted or overbearing). And while the story has its share of contrivances, Frizzell maintains a good sense of pacing so we never get stuck in one place very long. Also, I wouldn’t call the film visually flavorful, but Frizzell and DP George Steel do give us several scenes, almost exclusively in the 1965 setting, that crackle with old Hollywood style.
The movie’s biggest issue comes with the current day storyline where Ellie begins a romance of her own with Rory; one that never gets above room temperature. Not enough time is given to building the connection between them and their relationship feels like an awkward inevitability, existing strictly because it’s in the script. The movie could lose the entire angle and never miss a beat.
In a very real way I’m glad “The Last Letter From Your Lover” exists. It’s extremely rare to get a true romance these days, not a romcom or a teeny flick, but a straight-up old-school romance soaked with longing and full of heart-pumping desire. They don’t come along very often. Today’s filmmakers have no interest in them and studios seem happy to leave them for the Hallmark Channel made-for-television assembly line. But there is something robustly cinematic about a well-made romance. “The Last Letter From Your Lover” isn’t the movie to usher in a new wave of romance films, but it does give a little taste of what the genre can be. I just wish it was a more filling meal. “The Last Letter From Your Lover” is now streaming on Netflix.