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Missed connections, imperfect timing and the courage required to choose love make up the thematic bulk of Netflix’s The Last Letter From Your Lover. Based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Jojo Moyes, this dreamy and atmospherically lush drama follows two women living in different periods of time, exercising sexual and romantic agency in societies bent on controlling their desires.
Directed by Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin’ Back), the film combines the nostalgic aesthetics of a Lana Del Rey music video (think “National Anthem”) with the emotional poignancy of a conventional romance flick like The Notebook. Frizzell and screenwriters Nick Payne and Esta Spalding hew closely to the rules of the genre: There is no shortage of feverish kisses, passionate confessions followed by heartbreak and scenes of longing amplified by sweeping orchestral music. The result is an endearing and consuming, but by no means surprising, dual-timeline love story — perfectly suitable for a Friday night.
In 1965 London, American-born socialite Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) returns from the hospital struggling to remember entire parts of her life. The streets of her city feel unfamiliar. Who is the stately blond man sitting next to her in the car? He says he is her husband Laurence (Joe Alwyn), but can she be sure? And what about the petite older woman at the entrance of their palatial home, dressed in a crisp blue suit, addressing her as “madam”? She can’t remember why there is a scar on her face or shake this unsettling feeling that everyone is hiding something from her.
In present-day London, Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones) wakes up in a stranger’s bed after a wild night out. When she realizes the man wants to see her again, Ellie, who just broke off an eight-year relationship, bolts out the door and heads to work. She’s a newspaper reporter for The London Chronicle, and she’s late.
The women’s fates intersect when Ellie’s next assignment leads her to the newspaper archives, where she finds a collection of love letters addressed to Jennifer from a signer who only goes by Boot, or occasionally B. Enthralled by the heartfelt correspondence, Ellie enlists the help of the newspaper archivist, Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan), and embarks on a journey to find more of the notes and uncover the lovers’ identities. Their partnership blossoms into its own love story.
The Last Letter From Your Lover moves seamlessly between its two periods, with Jennifer’s and Ellie’s stories unfolding at a satisfying pace. Frizzell assembles scenes to create a subtle sense of continuity — showing Ellie emerging from an elevator with similar golden lighting to Jennifer’s dining room, or having the two women read aloud the same letters to transition between timelines. Working with cinematographer George Steel, the director also manages to give each era a distinct visual language: Jennifer’s London is marked by a soft-focus effect and possesses a dream-like, almost ethereal quality; Ellie’s London is marked by persistent overcast skies and the grittiness of contemporary life.
Back in 1965, Jennifer slowly pieces together her life. She realizes she was in a terrible car accident while on her way to meet her lover, Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner), a journalist with whom she started an affair six months prior. The film takes viewers back to those bucolic summer days in France, when the pair first met. Anthony, who worked for The London Chronicle (same as present-day Ellie), had been assigned to write a profile of Laurence, a wealthy industrialist.
The steamy affair starts off as most conventional romances do, with Jennifer and Anthony butting heads before the latter issues a sincere apology in the form of a letter. Charmed by his chivalry and bored by her husband’s absence, Jennifer invites Anthony to lunch, then a picnic, then on walks. As the relationship intensifies, Jennifer finds herself caught between staying in a materially comfortable life with Laurence or following her heart and choosing Anthony.
Although Woodley and Turner play the roles of lusty lovers well enough, it’s sometimes hard to buy the courtship. Part of that has to do with Jennifer’s one-dimensionality; we understand that she feels trapped in a troubled marriage, but it’s never clear what, precisely, draws her to Anthony beyond a basic sense of adventure and attraction. Occasionally, the film suggests a depth to their relationship and to Jennifer’s personality, like when she chimes in during a dinner conversation about Congolese politics before Laurence rudely cuts her off. Most audiences won’t be coming to this film for the profundity and complexity of its characters, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that some texture from the page has been lost in the transition to the screen.
The same could be said of Ellie’s character, whose own romantic narrative feels thin. In the novel, she is involved with a married man, and her curiosity about the letters — and stake in uncovering the mystery — comes from the way they parallel her own life. No such storyline exists in the film; her determination to find the letter writers and potentially reunite them, based solely on her belief in the power of love, is less exciting.
Still, The Last Letter From Your Lover is a pleasant watch, and will charm romance enthusiasts. The letters, which Woodley and Jones read via voiceover during the course of the film, are a lovely touch, too. In the age of anxious and avoidant communication in dating, a movie driven by candid love notes serves as a welcome reminder that sometimes it’s worth risking it all and sending the text.
Production company: Blueprint Pictures
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Felicity Jones, Callum Turner, Nabhaan Rizwan, Joe Alwyn
Director: Augustine Frizzell
Screenwriter: Nick Payne, Esta Spalding, Jojo Moyes (based on the book by)
Producers: Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin
Executive producers: Ron Halpern, Didier Lupfer, Shana Eddy-Grouf, Diarmuid McKeown, Ben Knight,
Stephen Traynor, Patrice Theroux, Ruth Coady, Jojo Moyes, Felicity Jones, Shailene Woodley
Director of photography: George Steel
Production designer: James Merifield
Costume designer: Anna Mary Scott Robbins
Editor: Melanie Ann Oliver, ACE
Music: Daniel Hart
Casting director: Fiona Weir
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