The Last Letter from Your Lover review – sappy romance is nothing to write home about | Film
The Last Letter from Your Lover, a Netflix adaptation of a 2012 Jojo Moyes novel, is pitched as a Russian doll of sweeping romances, a double punch of feeling for steamy summer nights in. The trailer practically gives the whole plot away – an awkward pair of journalists in the present fall for each other as they piece together an illicit love affair from the past through lost love letters, set to soaring music and the promise that “some love stories deserve a second chance”. The straightforward, unabashedly sentimental romance follows a string of middling original romantic comedies from the streaming service, from Set It Up to Always Be My Maybe.
But the film, directed by Augustine Frizzell and adapted for the screen by Nick Payne and Esta Spalding, is most comparable to another Jojo Moyes adaptation, Me Before You, a surprise hit in 2016 that grossed over $208m worldwide. Me Before You demonstrated the pull of an earnest, albeit ethically fraught, love story – in this case, a tearjerking connection between Emilia Clarke’s adorkable caretaker and Sam Claflin’s debonair businessman contemplating physician-assisted suicide after being paralyzed in an accident.
Like Me Before You, The Last Letter from Your Lover is breezily watchable, featuring two individually compelling, mostly flaw-free leads whose sparks don’t really get fused together. But it’s not likely to conjure any tears. As with other Netflix originals, The Last Letter from Your Lover’s production falls somewhere between cinema and TV movie; it’s decently costumed but hazily lit, baseline entertaining but straining for genuine feeling. Not quite a charming romcom and not nearly the sweeping romance it thinks it is, the film finds an airless middle ground – toggling between two love stories, neither particularly sizzling, the passion suggested by the letters read repeatedly in voiceover not nearly matched by the characters onscreen.
By far the more interesting half of the film is set in the past – we begin in London, 1965, as socialite Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley, an American with an inconsistent mid-Atlantic accent of sorts) returns home from the hospital. There’s been a car accident; Jennifer, vacant and visibly scarred, can’t remember anything from before – except apparently her best friend Hannah (Emma Appleton), who informs her she has a perfect life: beautiful, rich, married to a handsome businessman, Laurence (Joe Alwyn). But a love letter from another man that she finds hidden in a book sends Jennifer reeling, searching for a love she’s forgotten.
In the present, journalist Ellie (Felicity Jones) is introduced through the worn-out cliche of a thirtysomething woman with smudged eyeliner coming off a one-night stand – a neon sign that she’s clearly a fuck-up due for a revelation. While working on a profile, Ellie discovers a lovelorn letter in the paper’s archive, begging “J” to run away with him. With the help of an overeager, endearing archivist, Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan), Ellie begins to piece together the romance, told in gauzy flashback, between Jennifer and Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner), a journalist sent to profile Laurence on the couple’s holiday on the French Riviera.
The two romances proceed tentatively, thwarted by indecision and bad luck of drastically different scales, and then all at once. There’s the minor threat of Laurence, all preening menace and entitlement (Alwyn doesn’t add any depth to a one-dimensional caricature of prestige), some present-day meddling by Ellie, the unsurprising return of Jennifer’s memory, and even more unsurprising conclusion that ties both couple’s stories together with a muted emotional payoff.
Despite an almost two-hour runtime, The Last Letter from Your Lover still shortchanges both stories; Jones and Rizwan’s slide from forced flirtation to love feels convenient rather than grounded, while Woodley and Turner’s chemistry fits and starts, never given enough time or backstory to fully bloom. Those looking for a knockout, passionate reunion scene of star-crossed lovers separated by class and circumstance, a la The Notebook, will have to settle for brief PG-13 glimpses of what we’re told, in letters, is a torrid love affair.
The Last Letter from Your Lover manages to pull a few high notes of feeling every once in awhile, particularly when characters are racing against the clock. It’s enough to decently pass away a couple hours on a rainy evening, but not to engender any feelings one way or the other or justify the ardor conveyed in the letters that form the film’s throughline. The central romance here is, on paper, a love for the ages, a story of all-consuming passion. It’s not quite so in practice.