Hooray for Old-School European Pretension! Jeremy Irons and Olga Kurylenko in the unnoticed CORRESPONDENCE

By James Kenney

Correspondence, starring Jeremy Irons and Olga Kurylenko is a worthwhile semi-miss from veteran Italian director, Giuseppe Tornatore (maker of the classic Cinema Paradiso and a bunch of other stuff I haven’t seen). 

It’s very old-school European, which is a virtue of sorts, and its mix of lofty metaphysical/philosophical ambition, magic realism and old fashioned romanticism, if caught in the right mood, could be disarming, especially at this turgid date in cinema history.  A brilliant graduate student who also just happens, as a side job, to be the greatest stunt-woman on earth (I know, I know) is desperately in love with a much older, married-with-children, astrophysics Professor (I know, I know).

Such love is too deep to let commonplace obstacles as age and family stand in their way, and neither does death prove much of a deterrent, as Kurylenko is shocked by the sudden news of Irons’s demise, only to find him continuing to send her video messages and texts from the grave.  I won’t say much more about the plot, except it feels strangely out of time, as the Professor largely eschews USB-from-the-grave or Zoom-from-the-grave messages for circa 1998 burnt DVD communications-from the grave.

This kind of metaphysical oddball drama could have been an incorporeal feast in Kieslowski’s or Polanski’s hand.  Tornatore plays it rather straight, and it’s hard to initially adjust to the film’s somber, steady rhythms, as the plot is so daft.  You wonder early if he’s serious, as we smash cut from Kurylenko defending her dissertation (or some higher ed-related oral exam given by a stern-faced old white guy) to doing a death-defying (and CGI-enhanced) stunt that by all rights should make her preeminent in this dangerous field.  But no, she just does various perilous stunts here and there, then dutifully returns for her exams, all the while trying to parse why Irons keeps contacting her from beyond the grave, and what does love mean, anyway? It’s that kind of movie.

The film isn’t as creepy or as even as supernatural as you first think it will be.  No one will besmirch Irons’s bonafides as a grade A brilliant actor, but after films like Damage and Dead Ringers you spend a long time watching this assuming the reveal will involve him being some kind of psycho or at least a mental danger to Kurylenko.  But, no, he’s really a decent chap in love with a woman he wasn’t fated to be with. If guys are allowed the lovely and committed Kurylenko, then perhaps a Grant/Hepburn Charadeish move of hiring an older actor that is more immediately charming – say Pierce Brosnan – would have gone a long way into allowing audiences to embrace the oddball mysticism of the piece.  Irons is certainly intense, but it takes some effort to buy Kurylenko, drop-dead gorgeous and playing an Einstein-worthy astrophysicist/stuntwoman, giving herself over to a married near-70 Professor while never entertaining thoughts of another man.

But the film has its virtues, including, ultimately, its solemnity. It never undercuts its own self-importance, in a very old-school Eurofilm way.  After accepting that Correspondence buys its own premise, and accepting that you have two world-class talents committed to portraying these characters to the fullest (Kurylenko has to furiously text on-screen, a lot, and both do voiceovers reading their lofty texts), you have to admire that the film doesn’t smirk or destabilize its premise or turn into some kind of horror film with a Scooby-Doo reveal.  Kurylenko has long been underrated because of her Bond girl beginnings; she has carried herself admirably in several serious works, whether Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, Oblivion with Tom Cruise, and Russel Crowe’s The Water Diviner. The exaggerated, unnatural, lyrical dialogue doesn’t necessarily do her (or Irons) any favors, but Ennio Morricone’s score does, as well as the well-shot and lovely European locations (Italy, York, and Edinburgh were primary filming locations).

So what can I say?  It wasn’t boring, despite a lot of on-screen texting (if nothing else, Correspondence proves Kurylenko is a great cinematic texter).  Correspondence has a genuine core of feeling, and feels oddly reassuring in its rather quaint mustiness.  By the end, I experienced some of the sadness and regret Tornatore desired of me, without understanding for a minute why I let the film’s romantic madness win me over. 

In a world where people stumble all over themselves discussing how deep and meaningful recent King KongSpider Man, and Wonder Woman movies are, I rather responded to this old-school schmaltzy art house romance-mystery.  I could imagine Woody Allen taking a date to this in the mid-1970s and then, afterwards over coffee, waving his arms in outrage at her when she quietly admits she likes it.

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