The Letter Writer: Awkward rom-com takes shine off old Dubai

The Letter Writer: Awkward rom-com takes shine off old Dubai
4 min read
16 February, 2024

In The Letter Writer, first-time writer-director Layla Kaylif offers a romantic glimpse of Dubai before the city became a beacon of excess, luxury and high-rises.

It's 1965 and between the sandy-coloured buildings that match its desert surroundings, the people live a far more modest life than today – but these aren't simpler times.

"Kaylif certainly serves up an amusing enough set-up for a romantic romp, but she's cooking with too many narrative ingredients and little cinematic finesse"

Dubai: Before the glitz and glamour

Before the United Arab Emirates was completely formed in 1972, the collective Sheikhdoms were known as the Trucial State, a British Protectorate, with little love lost between the local Arabs and the colonising forces.

That tension is delivered mostly through Khalifa in a spirited debut performance from Eslam Al Kawarit.

He's the eponymous pen wielder whose commitment to Pan-Arabism means he refuses to learn English despite his teacher's protestations. "You're still an Arab even if you speak English," says Mr Hassan (Shadi Baghdan), noting that revolutionary Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser spoke both languages too.

Unperturbed, Khalifa heads to the market square in Dubai to begin his summer of penning letters for those who can't write, under the watchful eye of his pearl-selling father, who himself is struggling to make ends meet.

Khalifa's initial commissions provide some humour as he attempts to editorialise correspondences to the chagrin of his customers. Yet when Indian tailor Mohammed (Muhammad Amir Nawaz) seeks his services to write a letter to pretty Englishwoman Eli (Rosy McEwan), the Cyrano-esque drama begins.

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Eli is soon back in London from Dubai and soon-to-be engaged to Henry (Shane Dodd), another generic Brit. However, Eli shares a mutual attraction with Mohammed after meeting him briefly while visiting her uncle, who happens to be one of the gammon-faced British overseers.

Khalifa is at first reluctant to do the job but becomes so infatuated by Eli's picture that he pretends to know English just so he can write to her as Mohammed. Cue an earnest effort to learn about love by reading Shakespeare's sonnets, learning about Arabic poetry and watching Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago.

The endlessly expressive Al Kawarit shows off an unvarnished talent for comic line delivery and hitting the emotional beats. At moments, he recalls Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore – the American actor's film debut too.

If only The Letter Writer was as sharply conceived as Anderson's 1998 comedy. Kaylif certainly serves up an amusing enough set-up for a romantic romp, but she's cooking with too many narrative ingredients and little cinematic finesse.

Wobbly camerawork, jarring lighting shifts and cutaways to scenes that offer no apparent relevance to the story playing out make for awkward viewing. As does the battle between the romantic and serious subject matter.

There's a slavery subplot that is inelegantly shoe-horned into a script chock-full of tedious dialogue that rarely feels natural coming out of the mouths of the characters. Most of which play into wearisome stereotypes including overbearing relatives and a superficial teen love interest who swiftly loses Khalifa's attention once he sets his eyes on Mohammed's English rose.

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Despite her exquisite performance in Blue Jean, McEwan struggles to enliven Eli beyond a generic posh girl with a mild touch of white guilt and an opposition to "foreign meddling".

She and Mohammed are meant to be smitten with each other but their meet-cute lacks the chemistry to suggest so. According to IMDb, this is Narwaz's first film too, so his wooden performance might be down to inexperience.

But as the rest of the cast provides middling to mundane support, the directorial vision might just be the bigger issue.

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN

Follow her here: @HannaFlint