The Last Letter from Your Lover (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Oddly enough, this is also straddles 1965 and the present time and falls victim to the same problems of following two storylines. In fact, this is a tad complicated in that not only is present-day journalist Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones) investigating a romantic mystery from the past but the subject of her inquiry Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) is also investigating her own romance. Confused, you bet. Jennifer is suffering from that old Hollywood romantic standby – amnesia – and is alerted to her own mysterious past by the discovery of the letters that turn up half a century later in the hands of Ellie.

So really, there’s three storylines to keep up with: the contemporary exploration of the past, Stirling’s journey of self-discovery and in a series of flashbacks in the same period her forbidden romance – given she is already married – with charmer Andrew (Callum Turner). This 1960s is full-throttle glamour, playing out in the classy French Riviera, both Stirling and Andrew looking like they’ve just walked off a catwalk.

That it works surprisingly well is due to the three stories never getting mixed up (as in Last Night in Soho) and that in each period it is driven by detective work. People often forget there is nothing more satisfactory to solve than a romantic mystery rather than tracking down an ubiquitous serial killer. Three of the characters – Andrew, Ellie and her co-opted  investigative partner Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan), an archivist, are absolutely terrific, the actors delivering star turns. Andrew comes over as attractive but deep, a committed financial journalist. On the other hand Jennifer is pretty much a spoiled brat, and in the hands of Shailene Woodley over made-up and looking ill-at-ease in her glad rags. Amnesia has the unfortunate effect of making her wooden.

The 1960s romance follows pretty much the standard Hollywood template that is somehow going to hit an iceberg. By comparison the contemporary slow-burning romance between Ellie and Rory is a joy. She is outgoing, spunky, sexually confident – in a neat reversal she can’t remember the name of the boy she wakes up in bed with – while Rory is an old-fashioned stuck-in-the-mud whom she manages to warm up.

Felicity Jones has been through the Hollywood wringer – earnest roles such as The Theory of Everything (2014) and On the Basis of Sex (2018) mixed in with blockbusters of the Inferno (2016) and Rogue One (2016) variety – but here she is just delightful, playing a very rounded character. Nabhaan Rizwan (The Accident tv series, 2019) is wonderfully endearing. They play exceptionally well off each other, a sort of latter-day Andie McDowell-Hugh Grant.

It would have been a very quiet cinemagoing week for me to end up watching this and I wasn’t going to review it at all except for being reminded of dual-time settings by Last Night in Soho. I have to say I was happily surprised, the various mysteries enough of a hook, the Jones-Rizwan tag team exhibiting true charisma. Hats off to director Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin’ Back, 2018) for recognizing their potential and for keeping the whole enterprise chugging along. It’s one of the few Netflix productions to deliver.

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