84 Charing Cross Road (1987) Dir. David Hugh Jones
The movie smells of dust, old paper, and cigarette smoke. It clicks and clacks with typewriter sounds. It shows how to order out-of-print books, and look for antiquary bookstores. You can call it old or outdated. But it is a fascinating look at two cultures – British and American, two cities – London and New York, and two book lovers – Frank (Anthony Hopkins) and Helen (Anne Bancroft).
The movie tells a story of an almost forgotten relationship – a letter relationship. Composing letters, sending them by post, waiting for a reply. It starts with Frank and Helen exchanging letters about books she orders from his bookstore. Then Frank’s coworkers join in to write to Helen. Their letters are well-crafted, witty, enjoyable. They discuss literature, customs, culture, and food. They share their needs and desires although they never met in person. Along with the letters, Helen sends food packages for them. She has access, and excess, of all the food, goods, fresh meat and eggs, everything that is on food stamps in post-war England. Yet she desires old, leather-bound books. On the other hand, Frank has access to English literature, including old editions and first editions. He travels to different locations to get books she requires. They quench each other’s hungers. Helen has a hunger to read, the almost-forgotten passion to keep a book in your hands. Frank and his family (his wife played by Judi Dench) have a hunger for fresh meat, eggs, vegetables. Books and food – so little to make them feel happy.
Helen and Frank are both romantic about books. Yet, as personalities go, they could not be more different. She is expressive, excited. He is reserved, well-mannered. Helen reads with passion, writes with passion, even typewrites with passion. She rushes to unpack every book Frank sends. He keeps things in order, writes carefully-crafted letters, even eats with reserve and dignity. The story is not only about reading the English Romantics. It shows the harsh reality of not having money, struggling with one’s career. Helen dreams of visiting London, the London of English literature. Every time she gets closer to buying the ticket, a new expense turns up, as mundane as a dentist. Frank lives in London, knows the London of English literature, but doesn’t have the comfort and commodities of Americans. Helen’s story teaches us to not put dreams on hold cause one day it may be too late. She finally makes it to England. It’s an unfinished business, as she comments in the opening scene. And for us it is a really rare treat!
Long days, pleasant nights,