The Love Letter

(Peter Ho-sun Chan, USA, 1999)


It has become customary, these days, to dismiss certain kinds of artworks by making lame jokes about the supposed culinary and fashion habits of those who comprise the core audience for such work. Thus, those endless lines from the hipper-than-thou about the Chardonnay swilling, polo neck wearing, cappuccino drinking, Age newspaper-reading bourgeoisie ...

This is not arts criticism but pathetic lifestyle baiting – more blinkered and sheltered than that which it pretends to attack. The Love Letter is a prime target for such abuse. Undoubtedly, it recalls all those cultural milestones – TV shows like Seachange and Northern Exposure, up-market coffee commercials – which gently, whimsically explore issues of love, work, ageing and family within close-knit, slow moving communities.

There is a lot to be said for this curious pocket of pop culture. Intimate relationships are canvassed across a healthy spectrum of age groups and sexual orientations. The notion that life can always begin again, that nobody's rut is a tragic finality, is the spirited motif of the genre. The Love Letter encapsulates all the virtues, and few of the vices, of the contemporary life-change story.

Helen (Kate Capshaw) runs a bookstore in a New England down by the sea. One day, she finds an unsigned letter, a passionate declaration of love. This leads the somewhat closed-up Helen to open out to various romantic possibilities – especially her oldest friend, George (Tom Selleck), and the far younger Johnny (Tom Everett Scott).

For a brief, hallucinatory while, Helen imagines that absolutely everyone – from the garbagemen who drive by to her plucky assistant, Janet (Ellen DeGeneres) – might be the author of those fond, incendiary words.

As the tantalising letter flits from hand to hand, generating many unlikely effects within the local community, some film buffs will recall Ernst Lubitsch's classic The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – and, for once, a modern romantic comedy lives up to the comparison.

The Love Letter is a perfectly judged piece. Director Peter Ho-sun Chan (Comrades: Almost a Love Story, 1996) and writer Maria Maggenti (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, 1995) guide this material deftly. Although a light tone prevails, occasional moments of pain, regret and humiliation create a richer emotional texture.

The characterisations and performances are a joy to observe. Julianne Nicholson gives a wonderful individuality to Jennifer, a fresh-faced feminist who declares to Johnny: "I don't need your gaze!" When Helen's mother, Lillian (Blythe Danner), and grandmother, Eleanor (Gloria Stuart), move in, their interactions are acutely and hilariously captured.

Most surprising of all is Selleck, whose every move bespeaks a lifetime coloured by unspoken feelings and unrealised dreams.

© Adrian Martin February 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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