Dear John

Starring Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Henry Thomas and Richard Jenkins. Directed by Lasse Hallström.
Rated M (violence and sex scene). 108 mins.

The expression “Dear John letter”, coined in the US during World War 2, describes letters sent to members of the armed services abroad by wives and girlfriends to break off relationships because they had entered new liaisons back home. With this in mind, and with the opening scene showing Green Beret sergeant John Tyree (Channing Tatum) stopping two sniper bullets in Afghanistan, it seems clear that the path of true love in Lasse Hallström’s romantic drama is not going to be stumble-free.

Before blacking out from his wounds, Tyree obligingly launches a glossy flashback showing how blue-collar soldier meets yuppie college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) while on home leave at a South Carolina beach resort. Love blossoms at first sight, and they pledge to be true while John returns for his remaining year of duty and Savannah continues her schooling.

They furiously exchange letters at first, but things happen (the 9/11 World Trade Centre catastrophe for one, a serious illness on the home front for another) to change the landscape, and what seems like an idyllic union is put under pressure.
There’s also a sub-plot concerning John’s reclusive father (Richard Jenkins), who lives only for his collection of coins and for baking lasagne on Sundays, but hints that his mild autism (Savannah’s diagnosis) left its mark on John are not really developed.

Given this bald outline — because we don't want to give too much away — it should not surprise anyone that the movie (which earned a footnote in American film history by being the first to topple Avatar at the box-office) is a blatant grab for the heart strings. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, but one might have expected a talented director to have handled it better.

Perhaps Swedish-born Hallström (My Life as a Dog, Cider House Rules, Chocolat) lacks a fine ear for the nuances of the English language, but his attempt at low-key naturalism from his actors misfires. Tatum and Seyfried (the girl from Mamma Mia!), a good-looking couple, are allowed to get away with listless underplaying, making calf eyes and smiling goofily at one another, that becomes maddening after a time.

In their hands, the script by Jamie Linden, from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, sounds more trite than it probably is. One line from the movie rather sums it up: “We are eating and we are talking … but nobody is saying anything.”

Lacking pace — most scenes are too long and some of the letters voice-overs border on the interminable — it is the sort of film that can be recommended only to incurable romantics with a plenteous supply of tissues.

Anyway, all this exchange of letters seems decidedly anachronistic. In the 21st century, aren’t lovers supposed to be e-mailing, Skyping or Twittering, instead of putting pen to paper?

Roadshow   Out March 4

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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