Helen MacFarquhar, a
bookstore owner in a sleepy New England town, is the sort of wry, slightly disappointed heroine that Joan Fontaine used to play. It’s not that love has passed her by—it’s more like love stopped in when she was out doing errands. At the start of The Love Letter, a charming romance starring Kate Capshaw, Helen sorts through her mail, sees nothing but bills, and promptly forgets what she’s doing. Surrounded by travel guides and maps, she’s barely conscious of the missed connections in her own life.
Then a letter, minus its
envelope, catches her eye. The message is a simple, earnest
declaration of love, unsigned and addressed only to “my
dearest.” To Helen, celibate since her divorce, the letter reads like a prank—until she dares herself to wonder who might have written it. Though there’s a funny sequence in which Helen imagines that everyone she sees—from her business partner (Ellen DeGeneres) to a truckload of firefighters—
is reciting lines from the mysterious letter, the likely author is
either Johnny (Tom Everett Scott), her young summer employee, or George (Tom Selleck), a pal from high school who’s just gotten divorced himself.
Peter Ho-sun Chan, who
directed Comrades: Almost a Love Story, lets The Love Letter unfold like a lighthearted thriller, and Capshaw, who has never had a better role, gives a thoughtful, understated performance. Capshaw developed this adaptation of the Cathleen Schine novel as a vehicle for herself, but the story finds time for a few other romances, all sparked, or reignited, by the same letter. Unlike recent epistolary love
stories like You’ve Got Mail or Message in a Bottle, The Love Letter approaches romance with a real sense of humor. (Johnny, a
college student who can explain the libretto of Tosca, is also
cloddish enough to leave Helen a note that says, “I love you more than my car.”) And it is rare to see a love scene that focuses on the man’s, rather than the woman’s, ecstatic face. It hardly matters, in the end, who actually wrote the love letter. Everybody, including the audience, will get the message.