The Netflix movie The Last Letter From Your Lover is about as clunky as its mouthful of a title. On paper, this should be a sweeping romance spanning several decades that shows the power of true love to endure even the harshest tests of time but, in practice, it’s a disjointed jumble of undeveloped lukewarm characters in whose trials and tribulations I felt mostly uninvested. Am I saying definitely don’t watch it? Not really. The scenery is charming. The costumes are fun. And there are probably enough romantic sparks and embers to make your heart feel warmish while you watch.
The story begins in 1965 when Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) returns from the hospital with her husband Lawrence (Joe Alwyn) to their large, fancy house in London. Jennifer was in an accident and doesn’t remember anything from before the crash, though she has inklings that there is something important that she’s missing. While she goes upstairs to get settled and stare all melancholy at her reflection, Lawrence goes into his locked study to hide a letter that appears to be addressed to Jennifer. So we know from the jump he’s strictly up to no good in this movie, and although his face is handsome enough, it’s clear we’re not supposed to like him.
The movie then skips to present-day London where Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones), an intrepid newspaper reporter, wakes up after a drunken one-night stand with a guy named Andrew (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who she keeps calling Rob. He wants to see her again, but she explains that she just came out of a “straight-up soul-destroying” relationship, so she’s Emotionally Unavailable ™ and definitely in more of a Smash and Dash phase of life right now. Obviously, this movie will also be about her road to love. Sadly, for those of us who appreciate Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and his Genetically Blessed Face it will not be with Andrew. (Fear not my fellow lovers of fierce cheekbones, there will be other faces to admire.)
Anyway, at work Ellie is tasked with writing a piece on the paper’s recently deceased Women’s Editor, which leads her to the paper’s archives. Shocking absolutely no one, the archives just happen to be staffed by Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan), an attractive but uptight man who initially rubs Ellie the wrong way by insisting that she follow the archives’ seemingly banal and inane rules, like making an appointment online, to the absolute letter. Oh yes, it’s definitely going to be an Opposites Attract while stuck in a room poring over musty documents and unlocking the secrets of someone else’s illicit love affair situation.
And yet, their characters are so lacking in any real substance that the whole thing feels mostly blah with a side of meh. Ellie’s entire persona is shaped around her on-again off-again relationship that is finally really over, but she’s not Over It ™. And Rory is deeply into Ellie and archival rules. To be fair, they’re pretty cute together. Like when she shows up at the archive with a pastry and he tells her there’s no food allowed so she stands in front of him and eats the whole damn thing in about four bites while staring him down the entire time. But I digress and get ahead of myself. When she finally clears all the hoops to enter the archives, Ellie stumbles across a very steamy love letter addressed only to a “J” that immediately piques her curiosity. Soon enough, she and Rory are working together and delving into even mustier, less cataloged archives to track down more letters and the people who wrote them all those years ago.
The story moves back and forth between present day and the 1960s both before and after Jennifer’s accident. In the aftermath of the accident, she wanders around her home as a stranger, trying to figure out who she was before. Was she happy? What did she enjoy? In the library, tucked in a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, she finds a love letter addressed to her, but, as she has no memory of the sender, it becomes her own mystery of sorts to unravel. A way to find herself again. Wild, right?!? Ellie and Jennifer are both trying to solve the same mystery decades apart? Okay it’s not that wild. Or really that exciting in the movie since it’s obvious the entire time who wrote the letters. And that they’ll be a way for both women to find themselves.
The movie takes us back to six months before the accident when Jennifer and Lawrence went to the French Riviera on vacation, though Lawrence seems more interested in work and reminding the staff to speak English than sunning himself and relaxing. When Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner), a journalist, shows up to interview Lawrence, he and Jennifer initially clash over social class and politics, which you KNOW means romantic sparks are soon to fly. When Lawrence gets called away for work, leaving Jennifer alone for days on end, she turns to Anthony for companionship. The two spend days exploring the coastline, drenched in sunshine and soaking up every moment in each other’s presence. At this point their relationship is still platonic, but the line that keeps it there grows thinner by the day.
Look, I get why we’re not supposed to like Lawrence. He’s distracted. He speaks over Jennifer. He demeans her. Later, after the accident, he purposely withholds information from her. Eventually, he’s truly a monster. And hate him I did, but he at least has more clear character traits than Jennifer and Anthony, whose personalities are wafer-thin and slippery. They are restless and unsatisfied. Jennifer’s marriage is based on convenience and good business sense, not love and companionship. Anthony is burned by past love gone wrong. He is longing. He has adventure in his work, but no one with whom to adventure. But, beyond these ideas, they are no one, really. They are pretty human husks adorned with good clothes and occasional lustful glances. I suppose you could fill them with whatever you wanted—imagine yourself in them—but that’s not what I wanted from this movie, and so I was left disappointed and utterly disbelieving that this love, repeatedly thwarted across continents and decades, could emerge unscathed.
While you can probably pretty much guess how things roll out both in the past and the present, I will spare you any spoilers. I will say, though, that everyone learns to let go of the past and seize the present. And yes, fine, I did get misty eyed at the end, but only a little. Anyway, if I’m being honest, the movie’s greatest disappointment for me may have been its gross and inexcusable under-use of Ncuti Gatwa (Eric in Sex Education) as Ellie’s annoyed coworker with one (ONE!) scene. What if Ncuti Gatwa had been the intrepid reporter who stumbled upon the letters and fell for Rory, Guardian of Archives? I think that would have made the movie at least 50 percent better.
Perhaps you will feel differently. Or perhaps you’re just looking for something that feels sweeping and romantic and you don’t care about fussy little things like personalities or cohesive plots, in which case this movie might be just enough.