1960s socialite Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) is stuck in a loveless marriage to wealthy industrialist Laurence (Joe Alwyn). While they appear to be the perfect couple, mingling at luxurious parties and summering in the French Riviera, Jennifer’s restless and unhappy. So when charming journalist Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner) arrives to interview her husband, she finds a new spark of life as they begin a passionate affair through secret love letters.
In the present day, journalist Ellie (Felicity Jones) rediscovers said letters whilst on an assignment. Enamoured with the couple’s story, she retraces their journey and develops a romance all of her own with helpful archivist Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan).
Based on Jojo Moyes’ 2012 namesake novel, at first glance The Last Letter from Your Lover appears to be another period drama that romanticises the past and how much simpler relationships were back then. This is a myth. Romance wasn’t easier to navigate in the 20th-century and, in many ways, it was harder being an independent single woman than not. Stories of repressed desire like Jennifer’s were typical for the period, as many women married for security and convenience rather than compatibility and love. That’s not to say modern dating is always a fulfilling experience, but it’s a vast improvement from a time when women couldn’t even open a bank account without their husband’s consent.
However, even as methods of communication and dating have evolved, there remains something endearing about the lost art of love letters. We may be able to write a declaration of love over text, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as committing terms of endearments to physical paper. Somehow, love letters feel more vulnerable, more private, and more intimate, so it makes sense even a cynic like Ellie is drawn in by these past exchanges between Anthony and Jennifer. The sense of nostalgia and romantic longing works as the film’s core and it’s surprisingly engaging, especially told through leading women Woodley and Jones.
In an inspired casting move, both actresses are playing against type here. Felicity Jones has built a reputation for playing stoic and powerful women, particularly in autobiographical period dramas like The Theory of Everything (2014) and On the Basis of Sex (2018). It’s therefore a welcome change to have her play the dryly funny and ambitious Ellie; a distinctly modern woman who usually abhors romance and ghosts her flings at the first opportunity.
In contrast, Shailene Woodley achieved mainstream success in young adult films such as the Divergent series (2014-16) and The Fault In Our Stars (2014). The role of Jennifer gives her a chance to sink her teeth into serious period drama, something usually reserved for her co-star. Woodley’s already proved she can channel maturity and subtlety in HBO’s Big Little Lies and she doesn’t disappoint here. Jennifer’s well-read, witty, and charming, yet her marriage has stifled her into reservation. Still, Woodley expresses so much want through her transfixing gaze that you pray her vulnerability won’t be taken advantage of. Even when Jennifer and Anthony finally give into their feelings, she holds onto him as if she can’t quite believe it’s real.
They’re both well-matched in their love interests with Nabhaan Rizwan and Callum Turner. Rizwan aims for the sweet but slightly hopeless boyfriend quality that made Hugh Grant so popular. He doesn’t quite reach that level of floppy-haired excellence (landing closer to the acceptable “boyfriend you’d be happy taking home to mum” territory), but he plays off well against Jones. However, Turner and Woodley have the kind of electric chemistry together that causes one to root for them, even as it all goes tragically wrong. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s ridiculously attractive with fantastic cheekbones either.
Unfortunately, Joe Alwyn is wasted as Jennifer’s husband and could have been played by anyone. A cardboard cut-out would’ve done the trick! After all, Laurence is a misogynistic colonialist who thinks it’s acceptable to be rude to waiters, so he doesn’t stand a chance against the sensitive and progressive Anthony. Then again, the husbands never stand a chance in films like this. They exist to be distant and emotionally unavailable, written to devalue their wives and inevitably drive them into the arms of handsome strangers.
Much of the great atmosphere of the film is thanks to the lush cinematography, direction, and production design. The mid-’60s world that Jennifer and Anthony inhabit is beautifully shot: whether it’s the sun-kissed French Riviera or a neon-drenched London nightlife, cinematographer George Steel captures it all in its most flattering light.
There’s a lovely air of hopeless romanticism in both stories and the visual differentiation between the time periods creates a pleasing contrast that suits each love story. The present day’s represented through a more neutral and earthy colour palette, matching the quirky workplace romance of Rory and Ellie well, while for Jennifer and Anthony, their love story is softly lit and rich in colour, designed to capture the euphoria they feel together.
Additionally, costume designer Anna Robbins creates many stunning looks throughout—especially for Jennifer, who often invokes Jackie Kennedy with her timeless ensembles. From bright yellow sundresses to classic pillbox hats and matching suits, Jennifer’s inner conflict between the life she has and the life she wants is captured brilliantly in conservative outfits that carry their own personal flair.
As her previous work on HBO’s Euphoria and raunchy teen comedy Never Goin’ Back (2018) shows, director Augustine Frizzell has a talent for centring female voices in an authentic way. She seamlessly weaves the parallel love stories together, rarely faltering in pace as each couple experiences their highs and lows. Although they have stark differences, both women share similar fears and insecurities which Frizzell utilities to show the continuing vulnerability of being in love. It’s a fascinating depiction of romance that raises questions about how much relationships ever really change. The director’s own personal connection to the project seems to have given her a unique insight: Frizzell and her husband, director David Lowery (The Green Knight), reconnected through love letters before marrying.
Frizzell also has an excellent eye for establishing character connections through small moments. For example, Jennifer and Anthony’s love for one another is shown best through longing glances across rooms and stolen kisses in parks. Perhaps the most intimate moment between the two comes not from a sex scene but when they take a moment to join hands together, tucked away in a nightclub corridor. The genuine sensuality created sets this film apart from your average romcom.
The Last Letter From Your Lover is a well-crafted romance enlivened by its female leads, gorgeous visual style, and insightful direction. It has a tenderness and sincerity many modern romance films lack, leaving the audience yearning to be wooed. The story’s predictable but dressed up in enough charm and heartfelt sentimentality that the flaw’s easily overlooked. Woodley and Turner are engaging and exciting together, and it’s surprising how quickly you become invested in their happiness. Frizzell previously spoke of her desire to create something “warm, cosy and beautiful” with this film. She certainly succeeded as this is exactly the kind of gentle, good-natured fare that brightens your day.
UK | 2021 | 110 MINUTES | 2.35:1 • 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Augustine Frizzell.
writers: Nick Payne & Esta Spalding (based on the novel by Jojo Moyes).
starring: Felicity Jones, Callum Turner, Joe Alwyn, Nabhaan Rizwan & Shailene Woodley.