84 Charing Cross Road

The origins of the friendship were innocent enough: One day in 1949 a New Yorker, fed up with local bookstores that didn’t stock the English classics, wrote a London bookstore with a series of inquiries. After that, she did much business with the humble store, and the relationship that developed through the next two decades enriched the lives of everybody involved.

84 Charing Cross Road, the address of Marks & Co., Antiquarian Booksellers, is a film based on this true story, and composed entirely of the long-ranging correspondence. Now, if that sounds like an impossible prospect for a movie, be assured that the filmmakers have found attractive ways of making it all work.

Much of the film consists of outright narration from the letters. Helen Hanff (Anne Bancroft), a script reader and struggling writer, writes primarily to Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins), the bookish manager of the store, who quickly becomes intrigued by the feisty, knowledgeable American on the other end.

She soon breaks up the businesslike exchange with impromptu literary criticism, presumptuous personal questions and eventually a crate of meats and fruits (Britain was suffering through food rationing at the time). As the correspondence grows more personal, we watch glimpses of the lives of these people: Hanff’s sometimes lonely spinsterhood, Doel’s wife and daughters at home.

The director, David Jones (Betrayal), finds just the right visual scheme for this. Sometimes Hanff and Doel are seen writing and reading the letters, sometimes they are simply going about their lives while we listen to their words and sometimes they address the camera. This last culminates in a concurrent exchange, as though they were speaking directly to each other over thousands of miles. The technique becomes emotionally effective when we learn that Doel has died in the interim, and that this was their final dialogue. (They never did actually meet.)

84 Charing Cross Road is about a lot of things, like the sheer sensual pleasure of books—not literature, but books themselves—and the delicate fantasies that can spring up in lonely people who take to writing to strangers. Most of all, it’s about finding love in the oddest places.

This is beautifully captured when Helene must cancel a proposed trip to London, and Doel receives her letter of explanation. He stands awkwardly in the middle of the store, gazing wistfully as he murmurs, “She’s not coming.”

How does a movie like this get made? In this case credit probably goes to, of all people, Mel Brooks, whose production company made it (he’s Bancroft’s husband). It takes a lot of faith, or chutzpah, to believe that audiences will respond to such a singular storytelling method and subject matter—surely this is the first film in anybody’s memory that relies on jokes about John Donne and William Blake.

First published in the Herald, March 20, 1987

I haven’t seen this movie since, but reading this again, it sure sounds like something I’d like to watch. I guess somebody might put a spoiler arrest on me for this review, although the revelations seem logical with this subject matter. David Jones, the man who so ably guided this film and the tricky Betrayal, ended up doing a great amount of U.S. television, which doesn’t seem quite right.

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