Dear John

Dear John

*

Reviewed by: Nick Da Costa

In this modern age of instant communication, and cursory expressions of electronic emotion, Dear John’s return to the simpler, more romantic practice of letter writing is admirable. But as it turns out, unabashed sentimentality cannot hide the fact both are still a form of dislocated intimacy. Without a palpable connection and genuine passion, love cannot be sustained.

You would think then, that at the pivotal moment when our young leads meet it is important to convey this connection immediately to the audience. Words are powerful tools, but it is in the gesture and the gaze that true emotion lies. Without that, it’s hard to become engaged with the story.

Copy picture

Why then does director Lasse Hallström open the film like he’s shooting a commercial for beach holidays in South Carolina? Declining to pull in close, the actors compete with a picturesque view of the sunset and a stretch of pure white sand. If the director is disinterested, then so is the audience.

Maybe it’s for the best. Channing Tatum rarely looks comfortable in the title role. The energy and natural charisma he displayed in Fighting and A Guide To Recognising Your Saints seems diminished here. He confuses reservation with listlessness, playing John, a Special Forces soldier home on leave to visit his father, who embarks on a whirlwind romance with Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a college student on spring break.

Seyfried seems less confused, accepting the limitations of this Mills and Boon fantasy and fusing the doe-eyes and gentle heart of a Disney character with the chaste spirit that denotes the involvement of the producers from the Twilight films. It might be insipid, but at least its suited to the role.

The story unfolds with a tired predictability as the couple face separation. Inevitable and yet still presaged by a scene in which the couple canoodle in a closet, eventually obscured by John’s army uniform. Heavy-handed and a further sign Hallström’s heart really isn’t in it.

John is shipped off to Germany and Savannah returns to college. As the army pulls John from one conflict to the next, they renew their bond by writing letters revealing their deepest thoughts.

What should be a rhythmic deepening of their love in the eyes of the audience, feels like directorial auto-pilot. It also diminishes the power of the conceit as the letters become voiceovers, which always feels like a lazy and redundant device.

When the tragic events of 9/11 force the two apart once again, John having to decide between duty to his country or duty to his heart, far from elevating their love to the epic, it makes it tawdry and shamelessly manipulative. It’d almost be offensive if it didn’t offer something in the way of narrative propulsion.

War has been a backdrop to many great romantic epics, from Dr Zhivago to The English Patient, but after things take a turn for the worse and John receives the eponymous letter, his decision to concentrate on a career in the army feels more like petulance than bravery. It’s also hard to be stirred when it looks like all the scenes in Afghanistan were shot in a neglected part of one of the sets from the show 24.

As the film descends into a form of emotional shorthand that throws around cancer, autism and strokes as if we’re part of an experiment in Pavlovian conditioning, you realise, in one scene, that beneath all the mawkishness and passionless romance there is a far more interesting narrative thread.

In a subplot that details the relationship between John and his father, who suffers from catatonia, we realise that in their case, rather than forming a connection, love tore them apart. It’s not clear why John’s mother left, but he had to watch his father retreat into an obsessive quest for rare coins while he, apparently, responded with violent rage, later channelled into his army career.

While his father’s coin collection is diminished to a fortunate plot device, one of John’s letters leads to a reconciliation that, in an outstretched hand, evinces more emotion and tenderness than the entirety of John and Savannah’s relationship and certainly more than in the hollow, tacked on happy ending.

Reviewed on: 18 Apr 2010
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A soldier on leave has a whirlwind romance with a college student.
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