‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’ Review: Shailene Woodley Has an Affair to Remember, Felicity Jones Gets One to Forget

The past isn’t just a different country, but a different movie entirely, in “The Last Letter From Your Lover,” a lushly mounted pair of love stories — one present, one past — that are faintly enmeshed but almost entirely disparate in tone, style and emotional impression. In the first, Shailene Woodley and Callum Turner fall hard for each other in an obstacle-strewn, 1960s-set romance of chance encounters, missed connections and moist-eyed rendezvous on railway platforms, channeling the vintage Hollywood melodrama of “An Affair to Remember.” In the second, Felicity Jones is a cut-glass hybrid of Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones, falling only incidentally for the awkward archivist who assists her in piecing together the former story, before the narratives merge in a more British, neatly calligraphed rewrite of “The Notebook.”

Having previously made her name with the spiky, Sundance-stamped girls-gone-wild comedy “Never Goin’ Back,” director Augustine Frizzell doesn’t seem an obvious fit for any of the dewy, edgeless mini-movies that make up “The Last Letter From Your Lover”: Sure enough, she had no hand in the script, which playwright Nick Payne and author Esta Spalding have drawn with little great inspiration from the 2008 bestseller by Jojo Moyes, the same wildly popular romance novelist who wrote “Me Before You.”

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Yet Frizzell tackles the period portion of the saga with some directorial verve, committing to its saturated, hyper-styled romanticism and shameless storytelling contrivance to a degree that is all but irresistible — and unfortunately leaves the remainder of the film feeling anonymous and less involving by comparison. Even at its most generic, however, this letter from an unlikely woman fills a gaping slot in the summer schedule for grown-up, female-oriented entertainment, and should find keen recipients upon its release on Netflix in the U.S., and in theaters across the pond.

The film opens with an on-screen quote from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” scrawled across the screen like an original love note: “Why, darling, I don’t live at all when I’m not with you.” It’s a somewhat misleading choice of literary flourish, and not just because the classic novel that unites its star-crossed couple in fact turns out to be Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop.” Suffice it to say that “Last Letter” is an awfully long way from the elemental terseness of Hemingway even at his most romantic. The love letters that bounce the film’s narrative across the decades are floridly impassioned missives, full of swollen-hearted feeling and do-or-die pleas — the kind, the film unsubtly and wistfully observes, that feel desirably quaint in the age of instant messaging and eggplant emoji.

Their author is Anthony (Turner), a scrappy London financial journalist besotted with Jennifer (Woodley), the cosseted American trophy wife of wealthy, wooden-hearted business magnate Larry (Joe Alwyn), whom he meets in the summer of 1965 on a French Riviera trip of sunlit village rambles and glittering yacht rides. (The film may characterize Larry as a villainous capitalist, but drinks in the couple’s lifestyle with gilded pleasure.) The attraction is mutual, and intense: In roles that might have been played by Burton and Taylor at the time of the film’s setting, Turner and Woodley have something like genuine, lip-biting chemistry, making us root for their union even as the script labors to keep them apart, down to the quasi-camp melodramatic trope of selective amnesia, Hollywood style. Turner, who drew the short straw among the male stars of last year’s “Emma.,” emerges here as a suitably swoonsome but appealingly wiry romantic lead.

In the present day, meanwhile, Jones plays Ellie, a single, romantically wounded journalist at a London paper whose newsroom even Nancy Meyers might call out for being implausibly folksy. Apparently on the kind of dream contract where she gets a week to write a single obituary, she stumbles upon Anthony’s fiery, enigmatically initialed letters in the course of her research and is immediately sidetracked, determined to uncover the whos, whys and whens of this seemingly unresolved affair. Assisting her in this matter is sweet, shy archive manager Rory (an endearing Nabhaan Rizwan), whose attraction to the strangely glassy, self-oriented Ellie is script-determined from their first stiff meet-cute, but never supplemented by a palpable rapport between the characters or the actors playing them.

Frizzell, one senses, doesn’t much care: She’s left her heart in 1965, as she, DP George Steel (“The Aeronauts”) and costume designer Anna Robbins (“Downton Abbey”) set about making the film’s most old-fashioned romance as classically gorgeous as possible, all sensually blazing flesh tones and neon-in-rainfall reflections and lighting so velvet-soft the frame frequently feels on the verge of dissolving entirely. The relationship between Jennifer and Anthony may be thinly conceived, but Frizzell has the gift of getting her audience to invest in sheer beauty alone: Stray frames here recall Vincente Minnelli or Wong Kar-wai, before settling back into an overall aesthetic of less distinctive but nonetheless pleasing plushness. Would that the rest of “The Last Letter From Your Lover” made quite such a lavish, concerted effort to seduce: One leaves the film thinking they don’t make ’em like they used to, even when they’re making ’em all at once.

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