On paper, where it first started as a novel by Jojo Moyes, The Last Letter From Your Lover seems like ideal romantic escapism. Mediterranean locales, a charming 1960s look and some stellar costume design all seem like the perfect recipe for a solid romantic drama, one i secretly wanted to love from the first moment I stepped in the theatre. Alas it was not to be because for all its ideals of romance and grand gestures, Augustine Frizzell’s film lacks an emotional connection to the novel’s story. Throw in the fact its dual timelines are poorly weighted with Felicity Jones feeling like a bit character in a story where she should serve as a protagonist instead and you have a messy and painfully boring love story.
Telling the story of journalist Ellie (Jones), who when trying to finish up a feature happens upon a love letter hidden among her research papers and makes it her mission to discover who they are from and what their story is. The letters themselves tell of an 60s set affair between socialite Jennifer (Shailene Woodley) and foreign correspondent Anthony (Callum Turner), a romance that grows from a series of letters that pushes Ellie in the present to make her own connection with introverted archivist Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan) as they try and track down the letters and fulfil Ellie’s latest unfinished obsession.
It sounds like the ultimate story of hopeless romantics and while there are little loose threads strewn about like Ellie’s commitment issues and Jennifer’s position in society and as a wife in the 60s getting in the way and supposedly spicing things up, there are few films as straight laced as this. Frizzell soaks up the Mallorca sun (standing in for the French Riviera) and the period costumes really shine in not just the early sequences but even when Jennifer returns to drab grey London, here given life with way too much neon and poorly constructed alleyway sets and dingy clubs. It is in these flashbacks that the film works best, with Ellie’s modern day antics feeling cold and lifeless in comparison thanks to an overly blue colour palette that makes her moments, her life oddly, sterile.
It is this disconnect between these two women that is at the heart of why Last Letter fumbles. Woodley’s Jennifer is afforded most of the films limited runtime and despite having plenty of time to show you who she is, the film just doesn’t. While all the romance clichés are there, running through the rain, the chaste first kiss, the unnecessarily adventurous romp in a back alley coatroom, Jennifer herself is afforded one clumsy scene of exposition where you actually learn who she is, something afforded us because Jennifer herself is once again learning of her identity. It’s complicated but not nearly enough to matter. Ellie however is just never a priority, instead she is a device used to bring Jennifer to life when surely it is the writing of both of these supposedly ‘strong women’ that should somehow manage that.
Nick Payne and Esta Spalding’s script bounces off of each narrative, hoping to explain Ellie by spending time with Jennifer. The script never takes the time to just take the time to explore any of these characters wants, seemingly forgetting that outside of all the drama, this is a romance. While it is impossible to fault Woodley or Jones, each making their stories watchable and their characters empathetic if not much else, I can’t say I left my screening knowing anything about either of them. While I was grateful for brand new music from Haim, there was little else here for me to enjoy.