Looking at the two side by side, there’s not much that is overtly similar about Essex romance author Jojo Moyes and Texas filmmaker Augustine Frizzell. One is a journalist who writes affecting love stories that draw equal parts from Nora Ephron and Jane Austen, the other is a director drawn to stories of young women living chaotic lives fueled by sex, substances, and slacking off. In other words, Moyes is Sense & Sensibility, while Frizzell is Superbad. Surprisingly, it’s these differences in style that ultimately make the two creatives so perfectly suited for one another. Case in point: The Last Letter from Your Lover, an adaptation of Moyes’s bestselling 2012 novel directed by Frizzell, proves to be the best of both (very different) worlds.
Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) watches rain pelt the window of her cab with a forlorn stare. Her husband, Laurence (Joe Alwyn), seated next to her, squeezes her hand and assures her that everything will be fine now. They pull up to their London estate, where a housemaid stands outside to greet them. Laurence reminds Jennifer of her name, but she asserts she remembers. It’s 1965, and Jennifer is lucky to be alive. The scar that stretches down the side of her face serves as a reminder of the car crash she can no longer remember. The letter that Laurence tucks away in his desk holds answers: where his wife was headed when the accident happened, and who she was headed to see. If all goes according to Laurence’s plan, she will never have a clue.
Around 55 years later, Ellie (Felicity Jones) stumbles onto that letter while perusing some unrelated archival material at the London Chronicle, where she works as a features reporter. The missive’s poetic lamentation for a love nearly lost, its plea for the recipient to leave her husband behind and run away with him, its coded nicknames written in smudged ink, the identities of “J.S.” and “Boots,” and the story behind their sultry entanglement: These are all considerably more alluring than the obituary for the paper’s former editor that Ellie was assigned to write. She has an insatiable urge to find out more, and as she digs deeper, Jennifer’s relationship with Boots (i.e., Anthony O’Hare [Callum Turner], himself a former reporter for the Chronicle) becomes clearer — to both Ellie and the audience.
Ellie and Jennifer’s lives are about as dissimilar as Moyes and Frizzell’s, but like the latter’s styles, the former play nicely off of one another. Ellie’s modest lifestyle is in a constant state of disarray, happily hopping from one assignment to the next with the same kind of mercuriality that defines her love life. Jennifer’s is one of high-class living and expectations, with the suffocating nature of the prim-and-proper elite driving her full speed toward the first chance to escape when it comes her way. It’s a salty-and-sweet approach to storytelling, and it actually works well. Of course, as with any pair, one is naturally going to be better than the other. As far as The Last Letter from Your Lover is concerned, it’s definitely Jennifer’s thread.
Where Jennifer’s storyline is consistently rich, layered, and genuinely moving, Ellie’s occasionally feels like it exists only to refute those unfettered emotions contained in the ’60s-set sequences. It’s not just a problem with The Last Letter from Your Lover specifically — this is something that permeates throughout contemporary storytelling, whether it be film or television or literature. There’s a fear of being vulnerable, an unwillingness to let characters wear their heart on their sleeve, an insistence on undercutting every raw moment with a lame joke that completely sucks the air out of the scene, and it’s present in everything from the smallest indie movies to the biggest blockbusters today. It’s hard to put the blame on The Last Letter from Your Lover when so many other works are doing this as well, but it’s undoubtedly something worth interrogating. Why are some artists so afraid to fully embrace genre? Why do strong feelings always have to be negated somehow?
Structural qualms aside, The Last Letter from Your Lover still recalls the finest of Nicholas Sparks and Richard Curtis, harkening back to the time in the 2000s when those two dominated the genre and managed to fill theaters with their names alone. In a different time, Jojo Moyes could have attained this. Alas, these kinds of romantic dramas just don’t get to play in theaters anymore, so audiences must settle for streaming. It’s a real shame, too, because The Last Letter from Your Lover doesn’t look bad at all, especially during the ’60s scenes, which are imbued with vibrant colors and soft edges that bring a dream-like quality to the whole thing. Too many mid-budget films look more like prestige TV than actual cinema these days. Awkward blocking designed to make it easier to stitch together multiple takes and too-dark or too-bright lighting that rivals the aesthetic of a soap opera take precedence over any sort of artful mise en scène. The Last Letter from Your Lover is not gunning for any awards with its cinematography, to be sure, but it looks good enough to make one wonder what it’d be like to see it on a screen at the multiplex rather than a flatscreen in the living room.
It’s odd: The Last Letter from Your Lover feels unique, even though there used to be a movie like this in theaters every few weeks or so. It’s one of those once-beloved genres intended for adult audiences that has fallen by the wayside and is now destined to live on streaming services for the foreseeable future — while multiplexes fill up with bigger movies with bigger names and bigger spectacles for bigger audiences. More cynical viewers will find plenty to take issue with — a pretty glaringly miscast Woodley, a bit too much time spent on Jones’s present-day plot line, an under-utilization of Alwyn, and a low-key ending that doesn’t quite satisfy as it should — but for those who can sit back and enjoy a healthy dose of schmaltzy genre goodness, The Last Letter from Your Lover is a satisfactory way to spend a couple hours curled up on the couch.
The Last Letter from Your Lover will be available to stream from Netflix on July 23, 2021.