Nicholas Sparks has perfected the formula for the 21st century weepie, with The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and Nights in Rodanthe reducing hopeless romantics of all ages to tears.
Lasse Hallestrom’s Dear John, the latest cinematic adaptation of Spark’s work, gives you everything you’d expect – heart-wrenching romance, photogenic leads, dazzling vistas – and then some.
One beautiful spring day by a beach in Charleston, young Americans Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) meet-cute, spurring an intense two weeks of romance, enough time to fall madly in love.
So in love that they are willing to withstand a year apart, while John completes his military tour of duty. To combat the distance, they faithfully exchange letters, a passionate correspondence that helps them endure their lives without each other.
Naturally, the obstacles pile up, the least of them being 9/11. While John helps fight the war on terror, Savannah has her own battles to contend with back home. But what seems at first to be a predictable tale on whether Savannah and John’s love is true and can conquer all, proves much more complex, resulting in a moving exploration of different kinds of love – love for one’s country, the love between a father and son – and the difficult decisions people must make in navigating their hearts and lives.
Tatum (She’s the Man, Step Up) and Seyfried (Mean Girls, Mamma Mia) are well cast, and given a decent opportunity to extend their range, while generating tangible chemistry, the linchpin to any good romance.
The chisel-jawed Tatum, who resembles a younger, harder version of Josh Hartnett, is brooding and laconic, convincingly expressing the inner struggle of a lonely young man. Decent yet dangerous, he is capable of steadfast love, but also prone to self-destruction. This story is more his than Savannah’s, you’ll feel strongly for him as his defences melt and when his heart breaks.
Savannah is almost good to be true, which, ultimately, is one of her biggest flaws. She’s beautiful, caring and wants to dedicate her live to helping those who need her. She’s a little unrealistic in her idealization, and the film at one point suggests she is defined by her relationship with a man – but Seyfried, an actress to watch out for, does just about succeed in bringing Little Miss Perfect down to earth. Both Seyfried and Tatum demonstrate perceptible maturity as their characters age, no mean feat.
Also worth mentioning are Academy Award-nominee Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, The Visitor), who turns in a pitch-perfect performance as John’s mildly autistic, coin-obsessed father, and Henry Thomas (E.T., Legends of the Fall) as Tim, Savannah’s neighbor. The father-and-son relationship quietly develops into one of the film’s main drivers, helping us to discover John’s tightly wrapped layers.
Thomas, no stranger to sweeping romances, acts both as a mirror to John and his father, in being a single father to an autistic son, and as an important wheel in Savannah’s development as a young woman. There were some aspects to his plot strands that may be discomfiting, but overall, the underrated former child star plays his part with panache, striking the right emotional chord.
Director Hallestrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat) once again demonstrates his intuitive ability to allow scenes to speak for themselves, encompassing distinctive motifs that enhance his storytelling – in this case letters, the coins and the moon. Hallestrom manages a varied pace, slowing down and speeding up rhythmically, helping to prevent the action from dragging.
The Charleston beach is exquisitely shot, a bittersweet backdrop to the evolving romance, while the war scenes are gritty without being gratuitous. The film avoids making its stance on the American “war on terror” too explicit, while showing the personal sacrifices the soldiers have to make to keep fighting it. More importantly, the film shows that even when there are foreign wars to fight, life for those left behind continues, and is no less difficult.
The letters themselves are an enthralling cinematic component, at once old-fashioned and yet plausible, allowing a plausible portrayal of a timeless romance against a contemporary backdrop – and are a refreshing antidote to this digital, instantaneous age. The letters become a testament to the power of words, both positive and negative.
If you’re in the mood for a thoughtful romantic melodrama that stops just short of being saccharine, this would be ideal. Dear John isn’t quite another The Notebook – but that’s a good thing.
Verdict: A poignant romance that manages to surprise, as well as satisfy.
Dear John (Screen Gems, 105 minutes)
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Ryan Kauvanaugh
Written by Jamie Linden, Nicholas Sparks (Novel)
Starring Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Thomas Henry