A cosy romance may be the last thing you would expect as a follow up to the hedonistic Never Goin Back (2018) from director Augustine Frizzell, but it’s good that a new director is already showing range, especially when you consider that she’s also directed an episode of HBO’s Euphoria. Based on the book by Jojo Moyes, The Last Letter from Your Lover won’t be winning any prizes for originality, but romance fanatics are looking for familiar tropes, not the reinvention of the wheel. In the vein of French Lieutenant’s Woman or The Notebook, this is a story that takes place half in present day and half in the past – in this case, 1965. The sixties period means that if you like your romances with a sprinkling of beautiful clothes and cars, cool music and – perhaps best of all – a Mediterranean Riviera setting – you have come to the right place.
In the present day we have Felicity Jones’ journalist Ellie – who we immediately discover is ‘not like other young women’ because she has casual sex and forgets the name of the person she’s just slept with. She works for The London Chronicle – an institution that exists only in romcoms such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Holiday (and in another Felicity Jones film, Like Crazy) – a quaint, ramshackle building filled with quirky eccentrics that just so happens to have a labyrinthine (physical! analogue!) archive underneath it. Ellie stumbles across some love letters, with the help of archivist Rory (a delightful Nabhaan Rizwan) that lead her into the sixties-set portion of the story. There, Shailene Woodley’s Jennifer Stirling has amnesia (I told you that this was packed full of romance tropes) after a car accident. Her husband Lawrence (Joe Alwyn) is trying to help her recover and she starts to get flashbacks (within the flashback, keep up) to a romance on the Riviera – but the hazy shape she’s seeing isn’t her husband. It turns out that it is in fact, dashing journalist Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner) who is writing a story on Lawrence, but conveniently gets stranded in this gorgeous setting with a lonely Jennifer while Lawrence is called away on business.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its soundtrack of almost exclusively female singers, with tracks such as ‘Summer Wine’ by Nancy Sinatra, ‘This Little Bird’ by Marianne Faithful, ‘Do Right Woman’ by Aretha Franklin, as well as others by soul and blues singers Irma Thomas, Doris Troy and Wendy Rene. As well as the Riviera setting, there is the SoHo club that the illicit lovers frequent and where an innocent barman becomes collateral damage in their affair. The other London settings of the Stirling’s grand house, O’Hare’s bohemian flat, a park and a post office that become important to the couple are all part of the film’s attractive tapestry. With this being an epistolary story, the love letters have to make us swoon and they are written with passion (helped by Turner’s deep-voiced delivery). The other cute (but not overly sentimental) details include Jennifer calling O’Hare ‘Boot,’ based on an Evelyn Waugh character and him creating fantasy picnic settings for her using only words.
The problem with these films that are split between the past and the present is that the present is never as compelling or appealing as the past. The film inevitably takes a dip whenever the story moves back to Jones (who isn’t the most charismatic) in the boring old 2020s, even though she does have her own frisson going on with Rizwan (who is great). The costume design by Anna Robbins is always going to have its chance to shine in the sixties section and Woodley does get a fabulous array of outfits and accessories, especially her Jackie O pillbox hats and colour-matched gloves.
Woodley is certainly becoming a staple of the romance genre – from the YA weepies The Spectacular Now (2013) and The Fault in our Stars (2014) to the more grown up Adrift with Sam Claflin (2018) and Endings Beginnings with Sebastian Stan (2019). She is good at establishing convincing onscreen chemistry with her leading men and this role is no exception. British actor Callum Turner is not especially well known, but he is also no stranger to the romance genre, with Leaving (2012) – in which he plays the young lover of the late Helen McCrory, Queen & Country (2014), Tramps (2016) and The Only Living Boy in New York (2017) – in which he’s also paired with an older co-star, Kate Beckinsale. The film certainly comes alive most when Woodley and Turner share scenes, so when they must be forced apart by accidents, misunderstandings etc, the frustration is inevitable.
I don’t expect all that many people to be excited by the prospect of this film, but for those of us who crave romantic movies, especially if they have a period setting – The Last Letter from Your Lover definitely ticks many of our boxes. While the ending definitely slides into mawkish territory, the rest of the film isn’t too sentimental and mushy. The sixties-set scenes are a feast for the eyes and ears and Woodley and Turner make for a magnetic partnership who you root for. With first Never Goin Back and now this completely different film under her belt, it will be really interesting to see where Frizzell goes next. Romance fans have certainly got something they can sink into here, which is always a welcome prospect.
The Last Letter from Your Lover is available on US Netflix now.
In UK Cinemas from 6 August, 2021.