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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Cross

Archives in the Movies: The Last Letter from Your Lover

It's a very rare occurrence when a movie features an archivist character who also happens to be a romantic lead. Case-in-point, Enough Said is the only other movie on this website that could be classified as a romance with the late James Gandolfini portraying an archivist at the American Library of Cultural History. Your typical archivist character is either devoid of a backstory or investment in the main plot, so we never get to know them as a person. Hell, half the time they rarely have a full name.

Well, now I get to add another movie to the romance category! The Last Letter from Your Lover is a 2021 Netflix adaptation of Jojo Moyes' book of the same name. The film was directed by Augustine Frizzell and features the talents of Shailene Woodley, Callum Turner, Felicity Jones, and Nabhaan Rizwan. In the film, features writer for the London Chronicle Ellie Haworth (Jones) finds love letters in the contents of a former editor's archival collection belonging to "J" and "Boot". With the help of Rory McCallan (Rizwan), the newspaper's archivist, they piece together a romantic affair between married socialite Jennifer Stirling (Woodley) and journalist Anthony O'Hare (Turner) in the 1960s.

The film is partially non-linear as we see glimpses of Jennifer, recovering from amnesia after a car accident, going through the same process of discovery about her own life and affair cut between Ellie and Rory reading the letters from Mr. Boot in the present day. The parallels between the two couples are there from the beginning with both Jennifer and Ellie afraid to pursue romance because they're unsure if it's worth the risk while Anthony and Rory seems to be entirely gung-ho about risking everything for love and happiness. In a way, it's a flipped version of most romantic films where the women are all about love and happiness as the end goal while their male counterparts are hesitant to commit.

But let's talk about Rory and the London Chronicle's archives because that's what matters! Like Enough Said, The Last Letter from Your Lover does a decent job of portraying modern archival practices and procedures. When Ellie goes to do her initial research, she goes to the archives' reading room where Rory tells her she needs to make an appointment, use the online finding aid to select what she'd like to view, and fill out the form. This is basic stuff, standard practice for a lot of archives, which is why I'm actually stunned it made it into a movie! The next time she goes to the reading room to look at the requested items, Rory tells her there's no food or drink allowed as she tries to walk in with a pastry and coffee. Ellie then proceeds to eat the entire pastry in front of him and nearly guzzle the remaining coffee. Well played, madam.

Of course, all of the rules and procedures are part of the meet cute between Rory and Ellie as he presents an early obstacle for her to find annoying before the endearing qualities settle in. But Rory isn't a stick in the mud or a rules lawyer. He has a sense of humor and a passion for his work that Rizwan portrays effortlessly. When Ellie asks why he became an archivist, we begin to hear about his educational background - studied art history and did post-graduate work in records management - before Ellie is distracted by the first letter and Rory's words become muffled, taken over by Mr. Boot's voice. When she comes back to herself, Rory is still talking, presumably about his work, so we have to assume that he has a lot of love for his job even if we don't hear all of it.

We also get some backstory and a glimpse of an interior life for Rory! I can't stress how unusual it is for archivist characters to get this much attention and care put into making them a real person. Rory has a sister, he's also just getting out of a relationship where he didn't connect with the other person, he has a vinyl record collection, and a cat named Diesel! This is more than we ever get most of the time, so I'm celebrating this while I can! He's also on the younger side of how archivists are depicted and a person of color. That's so many boxes ticked in opposition of the numerous older white men that end up the default archivist for reasons I do not what to get into right now.

But what about the archives? The film shows us two locations, the reading room connected to the processed collections and the unprocessed collections in the basement of the building. As much as I'm loathe to see yet another basement archives, it's spot on as to how an entity like the London Chronicle would handle their archival materials. At the very least it looks more organized than some basement archives I've seen on screen and in real life! Thankfully, Ellie never makes a comment about dust even though there's obviously a lot of materials that have remained unprocessed for quite a long time.

The movie doesn't make it clear as to whether or not Rory is the only archivist on staff. He does mention an "archives team" early on when he and Ellie first meet, but that could easily be him overselling the size of the staff. Certainly he seems to be the only archivist available to Ellie, but that's more by design of the film than anything else. Then again, he's likely made himself the only available archivist because he wants to spend more time with her. Maybe there's more clarity in the book, but someone who's read it will have to fill me in on that one.

What I think the film inadvertently gets right is the collaborative nature of archivists and users. Rory doesn't have a firm understanding of everything that's in the archives. How could he possibly know everything they have given the Chronicle's long history? It's through Ellie's requests for materials and his own investment in the mystery behind the letters that leads them to the unprocessed collections from the 60s, and even then it's only sorted by date, not by any writer or particular issue of the paper. They're persistent and determined, but they wouldn't have gotten this far without the other. It's a nice piece of storytelling that's often overlooked when we think about how research and archival interactions are portrayed in media.

I highly recommend The Last Letter from Your Lover! It's a sincere, very sweet movie that brought a prickle of tears to this author's eyes. Or you can just enjoy it for the positive portrayal of an archivist and the archives. Win-win either way!

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