I was just exhausted and drained on Friday night, and in an effort to find something to do with myself so I wouldn’t fall asleep at 8 in the evening, picked 84 Charing Cross Road out my Netflix queue. I mistakenly remembered it as the movie You’ve Got Mail was a remake of (in fact, it’s The Shop Around the Corner–my old movie cred is shot), and prepared myself for an evening of pleasantly fluffy romantic comedy with, what I expected would be much better writing. I was right on the latter, of course, the writing is marvelous. But the movie is a pleasure of a higher order, a magnificent meditation on trans-Atlantic styles, growing up and growing older, and the writing and reading life. It may be one of the best movies on the latter subjects I’ve ever seen in my life. (Spoilers ahoy!)
The basic setup is this: Anne Bancroft plays a youngish writer, Helene, living in New York who, unable to find some of the books she wants in the city, writes to a British bookstore advertising in a literary magazine, and strikes up a friendship with a youngish bookseller, Frank, played with marvelous restraint and tenderness by Anthony Hopkins. After he sends her the first volumes she’s ordered, she complains about his failure to translate the price into dollars, and with the blast of her voice off the page, declaring “”I don’t add too well in plain American. I haven’t a prayer of mastering bilingual arithmetic,” a connection is made, a correspondence is formed.
The movie is told almost entirely in the text of Helene and Frank’s letters, and it’s an amazing exercise in authorial voice. Helene writes like she is: frank, Jewish-but-multicultural (“Are they kosher? I could rush a tongue over. Advise, please!” she writes to Frank in one letter upon realizing she’s sent Christmas ham to a firm with Cohen in its name.), intensely alive to the teasing and poking power of words, in love with their ability to elevate both her (she goes from broke aspirant, to successful television writer, to memoirist). Frank is vastly more reserved(“We watch it all from a safe distance, although I must admit I like the Beatles,” he says of generational upheaval at one point.), frequently apologetic, deferential, he continues to treat Helene as a customer long after she begins treating him as a friend. But when he signs a letter “love,” the heft of the declaration is tremendous given his previous decorum. We can tell Frank and Helene are soulmates not because of any particular declaration they make (When Helene writes, a bit boozily at one point, ”You know, Frankie, you’re the only soul alive who understands me,” it’s too much, for both of them, I think) but because of how uniquely alive their voices become when they write to each other.
That said, it’s not a love story, something that took me by surprise. Helene is supposed to go to England for Elizabeth II’s coronation, a trip that’s interrupted by that smallest and most pernicious of devils, expensive dental work. She only gets to London after Frank dies, prematurely, of a burst appendix. By that point, the bookstore that sustained her throughout her writing career is closed, and the staff she sent packages to in order to alleviate their years of rations have largely scattered. The empty shop isn’t a mid-movie disappointment like it is in You’ve Got Mail: it’s the end of the movie.
But I think that’s a brave decision. It’s refreshing to me that Helene never marries, that while she loves Frank, there’s an extent to which she’s married to the city. 84 Charing Cross Road is an intensely local movie in all of the right ways. ”If they lose this world series, I shall do myself in, and then where will you be?” Helene declares of the Dodgers, watching the World Series in a crowd outside a store selling televisions, only to have Frank extract a promise from her to root for his favorite, dreadful football team. In a scene that could have been incredibly weird and awkward in another movie but works here, Helene is accidentally caught up in the protests at Columbia (I almost fell off my chair when the movie integrated a clip of Mark Rudd’s speech there: The Weather Underground is my all-time favorite documentary) and arrested. The movie can get away with it because it’s so clearly established Helene as independent, abrasive, and charming to the people who strike her fancy. She’s a woman who reads a baby she’s looking after for a friend with a book of sermons–sent to her, of course, by Frank. The London side of the movie isn’t quite as well-developed, but a sequence of the shop’s employees all writing to thank her for sending them tinned ham and raisins from Norway is quiet and devastating as a portrait of postwar privation in Britain. It’s one of many good details.
And the performances are just great. I know Bancroft will forever be Mrs. Robinson to most people, but I’m astonished by how good her work was as she got older. She’s vital and gorgeous in Keeping the Faith, one of her last movies, and as she ages in 84 Charing Cross Road, she gets decidedly sexier. One of the movie’s later scenes, writing to Frank to ask him to send her some Jane Austen, she’s much more flirtatious and openly appealing than she was in the movie’s younger scenes. I feel like she was a trailblazer Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren ought to count themselves lucky to have. I sometimes think Anthony Hopkins is in the flashy final stage of his career, but he’s heartbreaking in his understatement here. One scene, where an American woman comes into the shop, and Frank finds himself paralyzed by hope that it’s Helene, but unable to approach her, should be taught in acting master classes: he never says a word to her, but goes from passionate anticipation to intense disappointment when it turns out not to be her, all in a few facial readjustments. And of course there’s Judi Dench as Frank’s wife, a bit of casting that feels a bit jarring now–watching her watch the coronation, one wants to holler that it ought to be her up there, in one of her multitude of queen roles. But she’s completely excellent, the one person who perhaps most understands Frank’s love for Helene and is able to admit the pain of it, even as she’s made Helene a part of her own life too.
It’s such a quiet movie. But it recognizes, something that’s all too rare, that the momentousness of human emotion is enough to carry us through, and to leave us weeping at the end.