Sony // 1999 // 90 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // July 13th, 2004
Love Letters is more ambitious than your average made-for-television movie. It's adapted from a beloved stage play by noted playwright A.R. Gurney, for one thing. Adapting a play for film or television is always tricky, and in this case it was even trickier, since Gurney's play uses only two actors on a bare stage, and even PBS doesn't try to get away with that on television these days. Love Letters also has a finer pedigree than most TV movies: No less a luminary than Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) directs, and the two leads are Steven Weber, who has developed into a strong dramatic actor (see especially his work in the TV remake of Steven King's The Shining) and Oscar-nominated Laura Linney (Love Actually, Mystic River).
Love Letters is a simple story: Andy (Weber) and Melissa (Linney) have been friends since childhood, and throughout their lives they have kept in touch by letter. Even though they see each other rarely, this correspondence links them to each other no matter how much distance may separate them or how much time passes. It's an unlikely friendship: Andy is dutiful, responsible, endearingly stuffy, but caring and contemplative. Melissa is the free spirit, the rebel, the outspoken wild girl whose extroverted behavior doesn't quite hide her vulnerability. In part because of their differences, in part because of bad timing and circumstance, they never manage to make things work as a couple, but even as they marry others and start their own families, they rely on each other's letters as a source of comfort, support, and love. The movie begins with Andy returning from Melissa's funeral and taking out all their old letters so that he can reminisce about their decades-long friendship.
If it sounds humdrum, it isn't. Donen and Gurney, who adapted his own play for the screen, keep things moving briskly in lots of ways: by inserting the adult Andy and Melissa into scenes from their childhood; by using shots of postcards and photographs to give visual cues about the changes in our protagonists' lives; by using quick cuts alternated with longer flashback sequences that play out more leisurely; and especially by allowing the adult Andy to converse with the visible memory of Melissa. These unusual, even quirky touches prevent Love Letters from feeling stagebound or stuffy, even though it's a very talky film (no surprise for any work based on a play). Placing Melissa in the scene with Andy so that she can carry on her part of the correspondence is a daring move, in that it creates a huge breach with realism, but it's very effective: As we watch the two characters together, conversing in the words of their long-ago letters, we can see the strong connection between them, the sense of comfortable intimacy that holds them together through their spats, their silences, and their missed connections.
Linney and Weber have a huge responsibility for the success or failure of this film, and they carry the burden with apparent ease. Both deliver nuanced, compelling performances and make us care deeply about these people, as different as they are. In early flashbacks they are played by different actors, which means we are subjected to some awkward child acting, but once Weber and Linney step into the roles in the flashback scenes we get to see how they change, develop, grow closer together, and yet somehow never manage to be on the same page romantically. The story of their lives is riddled with near misses, bad timing, and complications, but ultimately we get the sense that their long-distance relationship is stronger and more enduring than any physical relationship could be.
Donen creates a visual world that is both beautiful and lively for this pair: The flashbacks take us on an often rapid tour through changing fashions, changing scenery, and changing roles. The palette is glowingly autumnal, except at the beginning, where it is a bit flat and dingy in the scenes that take place just after Melissa's death. This is one of the most attractive-looking TV movies I've seen, and the beauty of the photography adds to the sense of romance that is central to the film. At the same time, it's not a sappy movie; it may well make you cry (especially if you're a romantic at all), but Melissa is quick to puncture any whiff of sanctimony, and there's a wit and unexpectedness even to the most heartrending scenes that keeps them from getting bogged down in sentiment.
The only detriment of note is the musical score, which does in fact descend into overblown sentiment at every turn. It's also a pity, although not a surprise, that there are no extras on this disc aside from a few trailers. However, the case insert does feature a reprint of the Variety review of the film, which is a gracious touch. Menus are also attractively designed, and audio and video, as one would expect for a film of such recent vintage, are uniformly strong. For a television movie, I hardly expected more, and I can't really fault Columbia TriStar for failing to locate any other goodies. Fans of Gurney's play may be dismayed by some of the changes to the source material, the most prominent of which is the revelation of Melissa's death at the beginning of the story. However, I can understand why Gurney made this change: Framing the story this way draws us into the story more compellingly than if the film had started with Andy and Melissa's childhood, which would come off as a bit saccharine without the presence of the adult Andy and Melissa as onlookers. Our knowledge of Melissa's death also provides a sense of urgency as we travel through the past: We know her time is limited, so we are all the more eager to learn how it played out.
Love Letters is a treat that romantics and fans of literate, well-written dramas should eat up with a spoon. It has both wit and heart, and at its core are two excellent performances. Some may cavil at the changes from the stage play, but the final product speaks for itself. Love Letters is simply lovely.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13