THE LAST LETTER FROM YOUR LOVER ★★★
M, 110 minutes, Netflix

Romance is not dead – only resting, like the Norwegian blue parrot. Modern movie romance is extremely difficult to pull off because a) studio films for young women are all about punching people and b) a modern woman doesn’t need a man to be free, fulfilled or happy.

Callum Turner as Anthony O’Hare and Shailene Woodley as Jennifer Stirling in The Last Letter From Your Lover. Credit:Parisa Taghizadeh/Netflix

And yet, skilled romance writers like Jojo Moyes still sell a pantload of books, like the one on which this is based, so someone must be buying it. And tragic romances never quite go out of fashion, because they’re the best kind. Love without loss is like porridge without salt (or comedy without humour).

Shailene Woodley moves into a more adult role here. She is also credited as executive producer, which tells us she owns its themes. The film is set in two periods, 55 years apart. That’s always hard, but American director Augustine Frizzell keeps it clear with classical fashion: Woodley looks like she robbed a Chanel van on its way to Harrods, circa 1965. This is the past as Vogue cover, but quite deliberately so.

Woodley is Jennifer, an American debutante married to a stiff and controlling young British tycoon (Joe Alwyn). They have every material thing — a beautiful London residence, a house and yacht on the French Riviera — but they don’t have love. Jennifer is very proper. She does not succumb easily to the dashing foreign correspondent, played by Callum Turner, who comes to the Riviera to interview her husband. The seduction is epistolary. Fifty-five years later, the letters fall into the hands of Ellie (Felicity Jones), a London journalist, but not all at once. To sustain mystery and tension, she must uncover them like a detective.

The contrast between these two women is the point. Ellie loves the romance of letters, since she has only grown up with texting; she has a chaotic love life, her eight-year relationship having collapsed because she didn’t want kids. Jennifer feels unable to leave her husband because of all the things that bound women before the courts made divorce easier. The men in this story have less dimension, because they already have their freedom.

The references to famous movie romances add frequent stops, like the night bus to Clapham; scenes set around trains, to remind us of Brief Encounter; kisses in the street, as in Bridget Jones; accidents en route, as in An Affair To Remember. These don’t help the quest for credibility. That’s the main failing: none of it quite beds down into a trustworthy semblance of reality. It’s awfully well done, in an arch and thought-out kind of way, but romance without spontaneity becomes bloodless. We have to feel that love may be denied, for romance to have its dominion. The parrot must squawk, in other words. The plumage don’t enter into it.

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