Mrs Jack loved this film back in the 1980s. She dragged me along to the cinema. I was resistant to being so close to suckers of death sticks (really: planes, trains, restaurants, cinemas, staff rooms, the fucking church, the 1980s; and now I get to hear them cough up their black and yellow lungs in C Wing)…but! For Mrs Jack, and the promise of special hugs, old Jack here would watch anything she liked. This involved a lot of Schwarzenegger and the occasional sensitive gem. Cue 84 Charing Cross Road.
It’s a bittersweet thing to watch a film your wife loved, alone now she’s no longer physically exists, hearing her laugh or sniff as the old scenes and old emotions roll by. So, yeah, I watch this one through a cloud of tears. So should you.
It’s terrific. A true story of an American script-reader (studious, enthused and odd Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff, in America) buying rare volumes from Marks & Cohen, a trusty antiquarian bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The chief bookseller sorts her problems, providing the books and fielding two decades of letters, whilst maintaining a gentle stillness and professionalism in a shop filled with similar British Character Actors in librarian mode. Anthony Hopkins is Frank Doel – a man of a suit, sensible family life, intellect and, for his clients, effort. Bancroft and Hopkins are international contacts, then friends and…though it’s never said…intellectual lovers.
And that’s a rare thing. Without the urgencies of youth – irrelevant here – the intellectual attractions of middle and old age are writ large. They’re not really the point, of course. This is a true story, honouring the book Hanff wrote of her correspondence with London. But old Jack loves what hides under the text. Friends that should be, lovers that could be, all of it through the sensuousness of the mind. Mrs Doel is played by Judi Dench. She is a housewife and mother of the time, Irish and passionate, but only gets moments and one final letter to claim her place in the film. In these moments she underlines the truth of the story, admitting to Hanff her jealousy at the only-ever-written relationship between the buyer and her husband.
Hanff’s story is humdrum – she becomes a TV writer, moves apartment, ummmm…. – but then so is the one told in the UK. If there’s variety, it’s in the letters as the rest of the staff at Marks & Co. (short for Cohen, not company. Really. Real life) write to Hanff. She buys their favour, mind, sending mighty boxes of food during the dying days of rationing. The characters in the shop and around Hanff are real and lovely – particularly Merecedes Ruehl as Hanff’s friend and Maurice Denham and Ian McNeice as delicately librarianesque colleagues of Doel. All are courteous, sweet and perfect.
That said, Hanff is prone to CAPITALISED RAGE in her letters and you never quite know whether she’s going to go too far with the fuddy-duddy Brits. And by the time she finally gets to the shop it’s too late for anyone to challenge her manners. Oh yeah, this is mostly in flashback. The film starts with her going on a taxi drive around London. It’ll mess with the head of anyone who’s ever walked from Trafalgar Square, up the Mall and past Buckingham Palace. Hanff appears to do it backwards whilst being driven forwards, so…that taxi driver ripped her off.
84 Charing Cross Road looks a tad dated these days – older, blurrier film stock – but this helps its portrayal of the 1940s and ’50s. Hanff is in New York, her occasional trips outside full of glorious cars and gorgeous outfits. Doel is in staid, wooden-and-bookish London. Both look terrific in the blur of ye olde film quality. The bookshop, when old and empty, looks desperately sad. Hmmm. May have spoilered you, there.
Oh, give up your snobberies and watch a lovely true story for a couple of hours. Do it in memory of Mrs Jack if nothing else. You’ll weep sweet tears for middle-aged, old-fashioned love and intellect.