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Laramie Movie Scope:
84 Charing Cross Road

A long-distance true-love story of books and people who love to read them

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1987) A long-distance true-love story, based on Helene Hanff's 1970 autobiography and adapted to the screen by Hugh Whitemore from James Roose-Evans's play and directed by David Hugh Jones, of books and people who love to read them.

Residing alone in a single-room brownstone front in New York City, Miss Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft), Jewish without a college education with a job as a script reader while composing her own unpublished plays on the side, has a "peculiar taste in books," preferring second-hand: "I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned and reading passages someone long-gone has called my attention to."

Frustrated with local booksellers not having the desired out-of-print volumes except in expensive editions, she writes to Mark and Co in London in 1949. The firm's modest bibliographer Frank P. Doel (Anthony Hopkins) responds, sending her a few of the books, including Stevenson, she's requested at a very affordable price (her British neighbor Brian, skilled in "bilingual arithmetic," translates pounds and shillings into dollars and cents for her), promising to locate others (Latin Vulgate copy of the New Testament, the essays of Lee Hunt, Savage Landor's Imaginary Conversations, a first edition of John Henry Newman's Idea of the University) not immediately at hand.

Years of correspondence follow the flow of books; the scenes alternate between New York and London. Made aware of food rationing in Great Britain, Helene pays for a crate of comestibles shipped from Denmark for Christmas. In addition to Frank's letters, others in the firm - at first secretively Cecily Farr (Eleanor David) and then Bill Humphries (Ian MacNeice) - pen epistles of appreciation for meat, dried eggs, and ham; later Frank's wife Nora (Judi Dench) - his second spouse of four years after the death of his first during the war - sends photos of their two daughters, Frank, and herself.

As well as immersing herself in "the England of English literature," Helene watches British films in the picture house and bakes Yorkshire pudding. Asked to describe herself, initially Helene prefers to remain "a woman of mystery" for her personal enjoyment before honestly identifying herself; she has a photograph of a naval officer (fiancÚ or brother?) about whom nothing is said.

On her birthday the volume she'd requested of Elizabethan love poems ("without slobbering") arrives. Dismissive of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, she writes to Frank: "I can never get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived."

NBC television pays her for one of her plays; her friend Maxine Bellamy (Jean De Baer), a stage actress, while in London to perform, visits the bookshop and later leaves stockings for the girls. After sending a scathing letter about an inferior version of Samuel Pepys's Diary, she answers Frank's apology with "you go to so much trouble for me."

As the years pass, Frank's colleague George Martin and then the King of England die, a new queen has her coronation, the women depart Mark and Co for other parts, Frank's daughters grow up; Helene expresses enthusiasm for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who like her eventually are evicted for renovation. With further sales of her screenplays, her hoped-for plan of a trip to London gets postponed when she finances her dentist's honeymoon with root canals and caps.

Upon receipt of a collection of John Donne's sermons, she reads aloud Meditation XVII: "And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another."

Finally in 1969, concluding the film's opening scene, she flies to London on "unfinished business."

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2010 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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