"84 Charing Cross Road," the new film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, is an exercise in overliterate nostalgia. It's based on the memoir by Helene Hanff, a tiny classic about an American woman's epistolary relationship with a British bookseller after the war, and its tone is hushed and reverent, as if a fussy librarian were positioned just outside the frame.
It begins way back in 1949, when people still read books, when Norman Mailer was still a young phenom and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Helene (Anne Bancroft), a youngish script-reader/writer, is frustrated by the barren shelves in her local bookshops, and so answers an advertisement in the Saturday Review of Literature for an establishment named Marks and Co. What follows is a long series of letters between the parties, read in voice-over, as the correspondents' two lives are laid out before us, in loving, genteel, stultifying detail.
Anthony Hopkins plays the role of Frank Doel, Helene's principal correspondent (and fantasy love object), with his usual meticulousness, but he's playing a dull man -- a faithful father, good husband, a paragon -- and his performance is all tiny gestures and wan smiles. It's inert.
On the other hand, Bancroft hasn't the range for artful nuance. In recent years, Bancroft has become a deeply mannered performer. She acts as if she were being paid by the expression. Here, where her expansiveness and energy is intended to provide a counterpoint to the buttoned-up style of the English, she acts as if she had been given a mandate to loosen the top-collar button and heave to. Her performance here is a marvel of excess. The sheer gigantism of it pins your ears back.
Director David Jones' first feature was Harold Pinter's "Betrayal," and this movie may may make you think of that playwright, though not fondly. Someone who mentions that nothing happens in a film like this runs the risk of appearing to miss the layers of implied meaning working underneath the surface. Still, nothing happens.
The movie seems to know who its audience is, though: It's the audience that is slightly suspicious of movies and, with rare exceptions, holds them in contempt. And that may, in fact, see this kind of nonmovie movie as a corrective, a rallying cry -- that rare movie that doesn't offend the literate palate.
But lovers of Hanff's book, which is about an enduring passion for the arts, will cry out -- as, I think, Helene would have -- against this drear, musty work. The effect of the film isn't to energize you about the life of the mind. Instead, it takes the kind of high-school-lecture-on-the-classics approach that, early in life, turns so many people off to books and the joys of reading. And from watching it, you'd think that the filmmakers had never had the kind of arguments about books with a friend that would cause you not to speak for a week. They turn Helene's life into a dry, cramped existence -- and she's the feisty American.
An enthusiasm for writing is a tough thing to communicate on the screen, but only once -- when Helene describes a Yorkshire pudding to her American friends as a "high, curved, smooth, empty waffle" -- does this movie show any real feel for language. If it were a book, Helene would have taken it and heaved it up against the wall.
84 Charing Cross Road, at the Biograph, is rated PG and contains no offensive material.