The Last Letter from Your Lover is an utter misfire, devoid of the chemistry and coherent performances necessary to sell its ostensible romance.
Like so many films before it, the romantic drama The Last Letter from Your Lover is based on a best-selling novel. The title alone is like catnip to a certain demographic of library user, and you can practically envision the book cover in your head: sight unseen, I’m guessing there’s a busty woman and strapping young lad stealing a passionate kiss, and perhaps a stern-looking gentleman glowering from the top right corner, title emblazoned in gold across their visages. But anyone seeking something quite so naughty should look elsewhere, as director Augustine Frizzell and screenwriters Esta Spalding and Nick Payne have taken Jojo Moyes’ 2008 novel of the same name and turned it into one of those genteel dramas that tend to clog the Hallmark channel on any given weekend afternoon. This isn’t the first Moyes work to be adapted to film, with 2016’s Me Before You demonstrating that the author has a few tricks up her sleeve when it comes to romantic entanglements. Even if all of her choices in that story weren’t entirely successful, at least there was some novelty to be found; The Last Letter from Your Lover, on the other hand, is as staid and predictable as they come, a decades-spanning love story that will lull even the most ardent romance fans into a state of slumber. There are not one, but two stories being told here —yes, two! — with Shailene Woodley and Joe Alwyn playing Jennifer and Laurence Stirling, a married couple in London in 1965 who are dealing with her sudden amnesia caused by an auto accident, a plot point that makes her conveniently forget about the extramarital affair she was having with a newspaper writer named Anthony (Callum Turner), the supposed love of her life. Meanwhile, in present-day London, print journalist and commitment-phobe Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones) is drowning her sorrows over a recent break-up in booze and random hook-ups. While researching a story, she happens upon a series of love letters that were written from Anthony to Jennifer. Intrigued by these correspondences to a degree that borders on the psychotic, Ellie begins to research the letters’ origins in an attempt to determine the identity of its authors, to see whatever became of their fated relationship. And so, the film proceeds to jump back and forth in time, filling in the various gaps that will paint a full picture of this sorted affair, all while imbuing Ellie with the courage to take a chance on romance with timid archivist Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan).
A film like The Last Letter from Your Lover lives and dies on the chemistry of its central couple, and Woodley delivers a performance so stunningly awful that it almost has to be seen to be believed. The actress proved long ago that she needs a strong director to bring out her best, and it’s quite obvious that Frizzell is not up to the task. Woodley ricochets wildly from embracing the film’s high soap opera theatricality to a purely narcotized state; a high point in her performance comes when, in one scene, she attempts a breathy, sexy voice and manages only the sounds of an asthmatic episode. Turner brings a welcome mischievousness to his role, but even his liveliness cannot produce sparks with a partner who, in this performance, is the human equivalency of wet firewood. None of this is helped by the fact that both Woodley and Alwyn look like children playing dress-up, with the former’s wardrobe looking like it was pulled from the dumpster behind a Jackie Onassis thrift shop. Jones, meanwhile, who is gifted at bringing ferocious spirit to even the most thankless roles, seems entirely defeated by the material from the first frame. Her character is woefully underwritten, entirely defined by her inability to commit to a man, and her own love story is so underdeveloped that when we finally get to the big kiss in the rain that must happen, it rings roughly as hollow as Woodley’s affected performance. It’s a bit confounding that the same filmmaker who brought such wild energy and abandon to 2018’s Never Goin’ Back could produce something this lifeless, with Frizzell opting for the gauzy lighting and warm color schemes that have defined nearly every StudioCanal production since its inception. That everything here easily reminds the viewer of another failed prestige adaptation, 2017’s The Sense of an Ending, should come as no surprise, since co-writer Payne is partially responsible for both of them, but at least that earlier effort was more forgettable than foundering. The Last Letter from Your Lover does indeed warrant one final letter, one that falls somewhere between the fifth and seventh in the alphabet.
You can stream Augustine Frizzell’s The Last Letter from Your Lover on Netflix beginning on July 23.