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Monday, 27 September 2010

Woody Allen did for failed romance what a news story does for a failed election attempt. In Annie Hall (1977) Allen humourously displays the dilineations of love-gone-cold from the point of view of a sophisticated loner with romantic sensibilities and a warm heart. But the sense of pure pity that Lasse Hallstrom generates in his Dear John (2010) is entirely missing. Allen spends a lot of effort trying to describe the social relations between his characters. Hallstrom spends the same effort looking at the enduring mystery of love and how it functions as a common element in our lives.

The social diorama Hallstrom leverages in his quest is not unimportant, but it is secondary to his main artistic aim. John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is an All-American boy and a Special Forces combat veteran home visiting his father on leave. He's muscular, quiet, and manly. He appears within a milieu we recognise from many movies out of the US. There's a beach, a beach house, a party assembled around a fire on the cooling sand. There's volleyball and old friends who are quick to offer you a drink to make you feel welcome.

Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) is the girl-next-door from an affluent Southern family. They own the beach house. But Amanda has unusual ambitions beyond those tied to economic success. She wants to help people, and this compulsion which sees her volunteer her time to help build a new house to replace one destroyed in a severe storm, will also lead to the sickening split that leads to so much drama in the film. Hallstrom has set his aim high, and forges a path directly into the centre of the American psyche in an effort to uncover something unique and universal about love.

The film is set mainly on the coast of South Carolina with its powerful horizontal features. There are the sand dunes and the endless, lapping waves coming in off the Atlantic. There is John's father's low-slung bungalow sitting comfortably amid nestling trees. There are the long, open roads of the coastal region which split the landscape between the beach and the lush hinterland with its rich herbaceous variety. Within this flat visual spectrum John and Savannah create powerful verticals, and the strength of this juxtaposition underscores their centrality in the story. It is their story in a compelling fashion that cannot be denied.

After two weeks' leave Stateside, John must return to his unit in the combat zone, but the two lovers promise to write to each other and tell each other everything that happens to them. The letters zing their way via numerous routes between two continents until, one day, Savannah's letters suddenly stop. John's dismay is palpable but the feeling worsens when, a couple of months later, he receives the letter he has been dreading most of all. His footlocker, where he stores the envelopes and their treasured contents, is emptied into a fire.

Then John is shot in the shoulder and is sent to Germany to recuperate. From there he is sent back to the US due to his father's failing health. While home, John visits Savannah, who now lives in her parent's home with her new husband, who is not at home. In fact, he's in hospital as a result of severe lymphatic cancer. They visit the hospital and John confronts his rival for Savannah's affections. It turns out it's not the guy John had suspected -- the irritating Randy -- but the separated father, of an autistic boy, who had been John's friend, Tim (Henry Thomas). After the two lovers return to Savannah's place they argue. Tim has told John that Savannah still loves him as much as she did when they were together for those unforgettable two weeks so many years ago. They seem irreconcilable now. "See you later," says Savannah as John is about to exit the house. "Say the same back to me," she pleads with quiet desperation. "Goodbye sweetheart," he says as he pushes open the screen door leading into the darkness. He goes back to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever else it is he's serving. But before he leaves he sells his father's coin collection and donates the money toward purchasing the expensive, experimental drugs Tim needs to fight his illness.

More years pass and all the while Savannah and John are still in love with one another. Then, one day on the streets of downtown Charleston, John rides up on his pushbike, which he starts to attach by a security chain to a parking meter on the pavement. Glancing sideways into the front window of a cafe he sees Savannah seated alone in front of a cup of coffee. She gets out from behind the table, leaves the cafe, and stretches up her arms to embrace John on the sidewalk.

The credits run.

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