Based on Jojo Moyes‘ 2012 novel of the same name, Augustine Frizzell’s sophomore directorial effort, “The Last Lover From Your Lover,” is a cozy romance encased in a labyrinthine epistolary mystery. Rotating between a rainy modern-day London and the sun-drenched French Riviera in the 1960s, the film follows two sets of would-be lovers. The film features a hopelessly romantic tone as it opens with an epitaph from Hemingway’s “A Farewell To Arms”: “Why darling, I don’t live at all when I’m not with you.”
In 1965 London, a dazed socialite Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) returns to her impossibly large townhome, scars on her face. She’s been in some sort of accident, her memory fuzzy with images, the meaning of which we’ll discover along with her. Meanwhile, in the present, we meet Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones), a thirty-something journalist whose last relationship has left her cynical. While working on a piece about her newspaper’s first female editor-in-chief she discovers a mysterious love letter among the paper’s archives. Sexual tension abounds as she works with archivist Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan) to track down more letters and even perhaps their writer.
Back in the 1960s, while Jennifer begins to piece her life back together the film jets from London to the ritzy French Riviera. Here, we are introduced to her stuffy husband Laurence (Joe Alwyn) and the iconoclastic journalist Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner) who is assigned to profile him. It’s clear how mismatched Jennifer and her husband are. Alwyn’s Laurence is all stiff tradition, that kind of British imperialist attitude in which they feel it is their right to control everything in their life, be it the world at large or the every move of a wife. At dinner, Jennifer and Anthony share a spirited confrontation, their eventual love affair seeming inevitable. Of course, we then learn that the love letter Ellie discovered was written by Anthony to Jennifer. The mysterious nicknames a code they used to remain undiscovered. The drama that pulled them apart and how Jennifer wound up with amnesia makes up the rest of the film.
For a film like this to work, there must be chemistry between our lovers, and thankfully, all four show up on that front. Nabhaan Rizwan, in particular, is a nice discovery, managing to make his nerdy archivist character feel like a fully-realized singleton, rather than stock cliche. Felicity Jones is clearly having a ball, able to tap into comedic skills she hasn’t had a chance to showcase in some of the more stuffy awards-bait she’s found herself in recently.
Both Joe Alwyn and Callum Turner feel at home in their period-set trappings, but unfortunately Shailene Woodley never quite does. She needs a timelessness, like Blake Lively achieved in “The Age of Adaline,” to feel believable as a mid-century, upper-crust New York-bred socialite. That said, her witty repartee with Turner works and if they were cast in a contemporary set romance it might have worked better. As their affair ascends, the two share illicit night-time getaways at a small dance club. These scenes are shot with verve and the chemistry is palpable, dripping in the cozy eroticism of hands touching, bodies swaying. Woodley shines best when opposite her lover, but falls short of the depth required for some of the more dramatic moments.
Frizzell and her editor Melanie Oliver manage to keep the tension throughout as the mystery unfolds, deftly weaving between the two time periods. George Steel’s lush cinematography, particularly in the French Riviera portions of the film, gives it a rich, romantic patina. The locations and art direction evoke films of the era like “Purple Noon” or period-set films like “Phantom Thread” or “An Education,” though the film never quite reaches their heights.
Ultimately “The Last Letter From Your Lover” is exactly like the beach read from which it was adapted: lavish, breezy, and inconsequential. However, for those seeking to escape the summer heat into a world of impossible star-crossed romance, purple sunsets, and kisses in the rain will find exactly that. If you’re looking for something with a little more weight, this will likely not be your cup of tea. [B-]
“The Last Letter from Your Lover” hits Netflix on July 23.