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MOVIE REVIEWS : 2 UNLIKELY LOVE AFFAIRS : '84 Charing Cross Road' Defies Distance to Dispense Literate Love

March 20, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

"84 Charing Cross Road" (at selected theaters) is a joyous celebration of the life of the imagination which here dramatizes how books enrich our lives and build bridges between people. What's more, the film affords both Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins some of the warmest and most winning moments of their screen careers.

Bancroft plays New York writer Helene Hanff who, despairing of finding in Manhattan bookstores certain works she cherishes, writes to Marks and Co., 84 Charing Cross Road, London. She has no way of knowing that, on Oct. 5, 1949, she has just embarked upon one of the most important and sustaining relationships of her life.

Frank Doel (Hopkins), the man who answers Hanff's note at Marks and Co., soon realizes that he has met through transatlantic mail a fellow book lover. Hanff is bowled over by Doel's British courtesy, but it takes her a while to dent his reserve. What really breaks the ice is Hanff's thoughtfulness in sending him a steady supply of foods and goods, in such desperately short supply in postwar Britain. In return for her kindness, Hanff finds herself corresponding not only with Doel but with his co-workers and eventually with his wife, Nora (Judi Dench), and their small daughters. Through letters, Hanff has discovered a whole new world, and in her, her new English friends have found a kind of fairy godmother.

Hanff's collection of her and her friends' correspondence became the basis of a play and also a British television drama, which was adapted by Hugh Whitemore ("Stevie"), who then wrote the script for this film. Whitemore has been completely faithful to the letters while bringing to life the deftly intercut worlds of Hanff and Doel. In providing so beautifully designed a blueprint, he has freed director David Jones ("Betrayal") to get the very best possible from his actors. For all its quotations from the correspondence and all its literary references, "84 Charing Cross Road" is a real movie with a fully rounded life of its own.

What a pleasure it is to watch Anne Bancroft in a role that fits her like a glove. Her Hanff is as earthy and blunt as Hopkins' Doel--the epitome of civility without stuffiness--is calm and polite. But they are equal in their intelligence and sensitivity and in their capacity for appreciating all that's good and worthy in life and people, as well as in history and literature. (Interestingly, neither went to college.) The love that developes between them is the kind that accommodates its particular epistolary circumstances and might not have flourished and survived were the conditions otherwise. Indeed, "84 Charing Cross Road" generates considerable suspense as to whether Hanff and Doel, both living on limited incomes, are ever going to be able to meet face to face.

The production design of "84 Charing Cross Road" is not the kind that calls attention to itself, but it is absolutely crucial to the film's success. Designer Edward Pisoni in New York and his London counterpart Eileen Diss have met the challenge triumphantly in re-creating a 20-year time span when both cities were undergoing tremendous changes. The harmony of Hanff and Doel's friendship is reflected in the complementary work not only of Diss and Pisoni but of costume designers Jane Greenwood (New York) and Lindy Hemming (London).

Hanff, who apparently lost the love of her life in World War II--we notice an affectionately inscribed framed photo of a smiling naval officer--was probably more in need of the correspondence than Doel, a happy family man. Yet even Dench's lovely and loyal Nora acknowledges envying Hanff her writing ability that so delighted her husband and the sense of humor he shared with Hanff. "84 Charing Cross Road" (rated PG but fine for older children) offers dual portraits of lives well lived.

'84 CHARING CROSS ROAD'

A Columbia Pictures presentation of a Brooksfilm production. Executive producer Mel Brooks. Producer Geoffrey Helman. Director David Jones. Screenplay Hugh Whitemore; based on the book by Helene Hanff; originally adapted for the stage by James Roose-Evans. Camera Brian West. Music George Fenton. Production design Eileen Diss (London), Edward Pisoni (New York). Costumes Jane Greenwood (New York), Lindy Hemming (London). Associate producers Randy Auerbach, Jo Lustig. Film editor Chris Wimble. With Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench, Jean De Baer, Maurice Denham, Eleanor David, Mercedes Ruehl, Daniel Gerroll, Wendy Morgan, Ian McNeice.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).

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