I have my VC to thank for introducing me to this beloved sleeper, based off the play and book detailing the real-life correspondence of writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, the manager of the antiquarian London bookshop Marks and Co at the titular address. Rife with literary love and charming incident, 84 Charing Cross Road is among my VC’s favorite films, placing somewhere in her top 20.
Anne Bancroft (whose husband Mel Brooks produced the film) excels as the down-to-earth Helene, who possesses an unusual taste for rare English literature. Due to her tight finances and lack of a Barnes and Noble in 1948 New York, she turns to a distant retailer, which would become a mainstay in her life. Helene is a witty, chain-smoking grandmother type, as endearing as she is sarcastic. Her admiration for British prose is evident from the start as the film name-drops authors and titles only ever heard in literary circles or English lit classes, such as Leigh Hunt, John Henry Newman, Pepys’ Diary, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque. For the most part, these out-of-print titles are taken for granted as mere names to most viewers but cherished treasures to a poor New York writer. Yet certain snatches of prose and poetry are quoted as well, allowing glimpses of the cerebral profundity that Helene finds so alluring. Likewise, across the Atlantic, Anthony Hopkins is ideally ordinary as Frank Doel, embodying British stoicism while retaining a subtle good humor. Two scenes with his wife Nora, played by Dame Judi Dench, imply an entire life of daily pattern and repetition, intermittently enlivened by a pithy letter from Helene. Though some characterize 84 Charing Cross Road as a romance, the letters they exchange are based entirely on their mutual love of books, even while they progress from “Yours faithfully” to “Love”; Helene has her career, and Frank has Nora, a seemingly cold marriage that nonetheless suggests a deep fondness. Still, the Oscar-worthy acting of Bancroft and Hopkins fosters a unique connection, despite their lack of shared scenes.
It’s likely that many people will find the epistolary plotline slow or tedious, but for those who enjoy literature, 84 Charing Cross Road is a treat. (I myself love shopping and owning books even more than actually reading them.) It’s a tribute to the old-fashioned book stores that have sadly gone out of style, like Marks and Co, which closed and is now a restaurant. The film also exemplifies the former power of written correspondence. Cell phones and email and social media are quite convenient, but no amount of texts or tweets could contain the power of nineteen years’ worth of affectionate mail. In addition, like Up, the film taps into how life’s greatest aspirations can be stalled by life itself. 84 Charing Cross Road is a quiet, unobtrusive story about the quiet, unobtrusive passion of two quiet, unobtrusive people, and I love it dearly.Best line: (Helene) “I love inscriptions on flyleafs and notes in margins. I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned and reading passages someone long-gone has called my attention to.” VC’s best line: (Frank, quoting W. B. Yeats’ poem) “Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” Rank: 58 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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