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Non-Review Review: The Last Letter From Your Lover

The Last Letter from Your Lover is an adaptation of Jojo Moynes’ breakout romantic novel of the same name, and it very much feels like a cinematic adaptation of a beloved novel.

The basic premise of The Last Letter from Your Lover is a nested love story. While working on a feature about another subject, an intrepid journalist named Ellie Haworth finds a mysterious love letter. This love letter suggests a secret affair in sixties high society. The letters are clearly addressed to Jennifer Stirling, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a wealthy industrialist, who finds herself navigating her own past following an accident that leaves her with amnesia.

How I Met Your Lover.

It’s a solid set-up for a romantic drama, with The Last Letter from Your Lover paralleling both Ellie and Jennifer in their investigations into Jennifer’s mysterious past in an effort to explore and investigate the sordid affair that potentially could derail Jennifer’s entire life. The Last Letter from Your Lover benefits from two charming lead performances from Felicity Jones as Ellie and Shailene Woodley as Jennifer, along with strong direction from Augustine Frizzell.

Unfortunately, The Last Letter from Your Lover never feels like a convincing screen romance, but instead a shadow of a much more engaging love story on the page.

Letter be.

To be fair, there are a number of structural problems with adapting The Last Letter from Your Lover to the screen. The nature of the story is inherently epistolary. It is a story told largely through letters. This is how both Ellie and Jennifer herself effectively conduct their archeological explorations into Jennifer’s romance. It isn’t that the letters are a direct portal or a window, as the entire point of the movie is that the letters are ambiguous enough to serve as a mystery rather than a linear narrative. As such, the letters tend to be quite abstract and flowery, and not necessarily easy to translate directly to screen.

However, there is a sense that The Last Letter from Your Lover understands that the letters were important to the novel, and that the primary purpose of a cinematic adaptation is to be faithful to the source material. So The Last Letter from Your Lover spends a lot of time on laboured voice over of characters reading letters aloud, which isn’t especially visually interesting – particularly as a recurring thread rather than simply a way into or a way out of the story being told.

Ex-mas.

There are other structural challenges facing The Last Letter from Your Lover. The narrative has a doubly recursive structure. It isn’t simply that the story cuts between Ellie’s adventures in the present and Jennifer’s adventures in the past, neatly contrasting the two women and their approaches to love, with Ellie learning from Jennifer’s mistakes. Instead, The Last Letter from Your Lover adds an extra wrinkle in the form of a third strand that follows Jennifer in the wake of the affair, having lost her memory and trying to reconstruct her earlier life.

There’s a sense in which The Last Letter from Your Lover would do better if it streamlined the structure. If it opted to focus on two of the strands, rather than three: whether Ellie’s investigation and Jennifer’s romance, both Ellie’s investigation and Jennifer’s investigation, or Jennifer’s investigation and Jennifer’s romance. Cutting between Ellie’s investigation and Jennifer’s investigation and Jennifer’s romance that both are investigating feels unnecessarily convoluted and constantly stops the narrative dead.

All’s affair.

As with a lot of things in The Last Letter from Your Lover, it feels like a structural quirk ported over from the source novel. It is certainly an approach that would work better in prose, where there would be more space to spend in each of the three threads and more room to explore the internal lives of these characters on top of their digging into the same historical event. It’s not an approach that translates well to a cinematic love story, often feeling like an extra wrinkle that has been thrown into the mix because it is expected to be there.

This is a shame, because these sorts of convolutions distract from the movie’s core strengths. Felicity Jones is a remarkable lead performer, and she seems to relish the opportunity to play the kind of romantic lead that doesn’t really exist in popular cinema anymore. Jones is immensely charming and has easy chemistry with co-star Nabhaan Rizwan, and it’s not too difficult to imagine an alternate universe where Jones had emerged a decade or two earlier and was working steadily in romantic comedies and dramas.

Post affair anxiety.

Similarly, Shailene Woodley does good work in the role of Jennifer, particularly given that she’s operating with a number of constraints that don’t directly apply to Jones. The nature of Woodley’s plot means that the actor has to be a lot more introspective and reserved, both in terms of playing a woman engaging in an affair and also a woman trying to piece together events that she cannot remember. Woodley lacks a co-star as comfortable as Rizwan, and doesn’t share any appreciable chemistry with either of the two male leads in her sections of the movie – Callum Turner and Joe Alwyn.

The movie also benefits from strong direction from Augustine Frizzell. Frizzell makes excellent use of location work in Mallorca, and does an excellent job communicating ideas and emotions visually. A single extended take of Jennifer and her husband driving silently through this exotic holiday location, including a stretch through a dark tunnel, says more about the state of their relationship than any of the awkward exposition or clumsily-written dinner party scenes that communicate the state of the relationship more explicitly.

Looking past.

Unfortunately, these elements are somewhat overwhelmed by the limitations of the film around them.

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