By all rights this 1987 film version of the play version of Helene Hanff’s book shouldn’t work. After all, it’s essentially an exchange of letters between two characters — Hanff (Anne Bancroft) and bookseller Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins) — who never meet. Worse, a great deal of it involves a discussion of (dear Lord!) literature. Could anything possibly be less cinematic? However, by a miracle of writing, acting and direction, what could have been — possibly should have been — a deadly moviegoing experience is turned into something very like pure gold.
The shrewd structure of the work — letters exchanged by outspoken New Yorker Hanff and very proper Brit Doel are allowed to gradually become more personal — is its major saving grace and the reason its otherwise leisurely pace feels right. You know early on that this isn’t really leading to anything other than an exchange of ideas and thoughts, and that the almost-romantic relationship that ensues will never develop beyond the epistolary state. But it doesn’t matter, because the characters are so beguiling and warmly real — even though it’s more than a little likely that Ms. Hanff took some liberties in crafting her personal myth. (The script is shrewd enough to cover this with its statement that whatever England you go looking for, you’ll find, that it’s there if you want to see it.) The genuine sense of a correspondence is brilliantly portrayed, and really, is there anything wrong with a movie that concentrates on ideas and literature?
â reviewed by Ken Hanke