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Playing by the Book


By Cristina V. Coletta

BASED ON an actual romance, 84 Charing Cross Road is a different kind of love story. Its protagonists are not a man and a woman, but a man, a woman, and the books they revere. The title refers to the street address of a small London book shop--Marks and Co.--managed by the quietly unassuming Frank Dole (Anthony Hopkins) or, "F.P.D. for Marks and Co." as he is known to his mail-order customers.

84 Charing Cross Road

Screenplay by Hugh Whitmore

Directed by David Jones

At the USA Nickelodeon

One of these customers is Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft), a free-spirited New York script reader forever on the lookout for classic volumes of poetry and prose at affordable prices. One day she comes across an advertisement for Marks and Co. in the Saturday Review, and pens the first letter of what will become a two-decade-long correspondence between herself and the various employees of Marks and Co.

The relationship begins during the early fifties, a time of plenty in the United States and want in Europe. Helene saves her pennies, literally, and spreads the wealth with big orders for Marks and Co.

This premise, quite a literary one, seems at first unsuited for treatment on the big screen. The sparse dialogue shares time with voice-overs by Bancroft and Hopkins reading aloud the amusing epistolary interchanges between their characters. Perhaps correctly sensing the thinness of the letters gimmick, screenwriter Hugh Whitmore tries to flesh out the story by including little vignettes of Hanff and Dole's lives.

We meet the widowed Hanff's closest friends, a wealthy young couple, a well-heeled actress daughter of a Park Avenue matron and a working-girl neighbor and her British boyfriend. They are a motley crew whose collective eccentricity is matched only by the writers own. All of these episodes--save one in which the actress, temporarily in London, scopes out the infamous bookstore for her pal back in the States--are irrelevant to the story's principal theme, bibliophilia, and remain half-baked.

Vignettes regarding the characters on the other side of the ocean are more effective as they concern the bookstore employees' reactions to Hanff's piquant letters. Each note is anticipated with great glee. The refreshing tone of sentences like "What kind of a Pepys diary is this? This is some editors idea of a Pepys diary" cuts through the tedium of life at 84 Charing Cross Road. With the letters eventually come packages of hard-to-find gourmet goodies from Denmark as a gesture of Hanff's appreciation for the employee's efforts on her part.

More gifts, snapshots, and letters from all members of the firm fly back and forth across the Atlantic as Hanfff is welcome into their spiritual family, "the England of English literature," as Hanff writes. A trip to 84 Charing Cross Road will make you want to join as well.

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