84 Charing Cross Road (1987 US–UK)

charingcrossroad20“84 Charing Cross Road” is the best film I know about unbridled passion for books, for words, and the kind of intimacy that can take place when one person who loves words makes contact with another who shares, or at least appreciates, that passion. If you are the kind of observant, sensitive soul who can see someone sitting on a park bench and intuit their biography from the way they wear their scarf, hold their bodies and read their newspaper, you will *hear* all that this motion picture is saying, and it will move you to tears.

Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft), is a single New Yorker, of mixed Jewish and Christian family. She is a no-nonsense lover of life, cigarettes, hard liquor, and books. She is the kind of reader that every writer dreams of writing for — she is like a sponge, soaking up every word; she is like a bell; when an author’s words strike her, she rings. She is like the very best of interlocutors. Writers dream of having a reader like this to interact in dialogue with their works. When Hanff can’t find a book she needs locally (and she has expensive tastes), she writes to a London book shop, Marks and Cohen. This store is staffed by one Frank Doel. Doel meets her needs. This is in 1949. Their exchange of letters lasts decades into the future.

The film lovingly and deftly chronicles the decades’ changes in fashion, not just in clothing, but also in architecture. Both Helene and Frank are living in distinctly 1949 dwellings when their exchange begins, and are living in more modern dwellings toward the end of the story. Hair styles, current events, the sound of rock music heard from a passing radio, act like clocks to remind the viewer of the passage of time in this relationship. That chronicling, via visual cues, of the passage of time is just one of the many ways this film communicates that may be too subtle for many viewers. What the film is saying in these details is this: these two people and their acquaintances and colleagues who participate in this correspondence, are investing time in each other in a drastically changing world. And time is a precious commodity.

charing-cross_standardAs the world spins precariously around them, from the post-World War Two rationing in Britain to the introduction of the miniskirt 20 years later, Helene and Frank continue to be there for each other. There are so many other ways in which this movie tells a wondrous, rich tale that have nothing to do with conventional ways that films communicate. There are no conventional “love” scenes, or fight scenes. We have one scene after another of painstakingly crafted detail, building up a story as rich as full fat cream. By the end of this journey the observant viewer will *know* Helene and Frank in a way that very few films allow viewers to know their characters. Watch the joie de vivre that Helene brings to ordering gifts from a Danish catalogue, or just the way she talks about books in general.

Watch Frank going about the business of meeting his customer’s needs, or when he is asked to join a Conga dance. The two “loudest” sequences are when Helene goes to a movie theater and watches “Brief Encounter,” a classic film about a brief, extra-marital affair. While watching this movie, Helene fantasizes about finally visiting London. This tells you all you much of how Helene feels about Frank. Similarly, carefully watch a scene in which Frank reads aloud a Yeats poem which ends, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” To the person who really listens, “84 Charing Cross Road” is one of the richest films from the 80s. But there is one downside that spoils it some degree– I simply cannot understand why the director and/or producer thought it would be funny to break the fourth wall and have Anne (and, in one scene, Anthony) talk to the camera. It is irritating and mood destroying.

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Comments

  1. Interesting. Haven’t heard of it yet. Will put it on my list. Thanks for a great article.

    Liked by 2 people

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