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A LOVE STORY TO FALL IN LOVE WITH

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Times Arts Editor

It’s a story that sounds too fortuitous to be true, but we have Anne Bancroft’s word that it happened. She was sitting on the beach at Fire Island, N.Y., where she and husband Mel Brooks do as much summering as they can, when a man walked up and handed her a book.

“Do you know this book?” he asked. “You should read it. You’d be great for it.” The book was Helene Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road.” Bancroft hadn’t read it but did and, like most of those who have read it, she fell in love with it.

She and Brooks acquired the film rights and began the long struggle to have the film financed and made. Brooksfilm is headquartered at Fox but Columbia is releasing the film.

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“I have no idea who the man on the beach was,” Bancroft said a few days ago. “Maybe he’ll show up and want a finder’s fee.”

Actually, that would be out of keeping with the spirit of the book and the film (and the BBC teleplay and the London and New York stage productions that preceded the film).

Helene Hanff, then a Manhattan script reader and later a television script writer, in 1949 began a 20-year correspondence with a London firm of antiquarian booksellers at 84 Charing Cross Road.

Marks & Co. was a very real firm, whose ad Hanff spotted in the Saturday Review. My friend Elizabeth Wrigley, who runs the Francis Bacon Library at the Claremont Colleges, has her own recollections of the efficiency and charm of the firm. It no longer exists, and the site is occupied by a shop selling rock videos, compact discs and other non-literary accouterments.

You don’t wonder that the film was a difficult sell. It’s a love story in which the object of everybody’s affection is great writing. It was a tale told exclusively in letters between buyer and seller. Hanff, of course, could not restrict herself to the business at hand in the correspondence anymore--you have the feeling--than she could confine herself to a simple yes or no in any conversation.

In the letters she chats and chides and exults and explains and describes her days good and bad and sends gift packages to a still-rationed London. The stodgiest correspondent must thaw before such an assaulting cheerfulness. Before you know it, there is something between the lines and behind the postmarks in the letters between the New York single woman and the sedate, proper man at Marks, Frank Doel, he of the nice wife and two nice daughters and the metronomic commuting pattern.

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What is between the lines Hanff and Doel do not admit, even to themselves. But it grows evident that two people committed to the life of the imagination can, in their abundant romantic fantasies, envision other lives for each other: she amid the musty splendors of the British past, he perhaps in some bolder, less-tethered role, possibly with this irresistible free spirit. These are such dreams as reading may set in motion for you, and they are more poignant for it.

The subtle skill and warming delight of the performances is that Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, convey so much that is not said but felt, as it was evidently felt but not said in the real lives. They played out, it may be, a kind of charade that lasted two decades, and enriched two lives.

(It may be that the film, as films will, has hinted of unspoken romantic love where the letters meant only deep but implicit friendship, but for once the film may be right in its supposings.)

There are films that seek only a small perfection, in which, as in museum-quality jewelry, the grandeur is in the impeccable fineness of the execution. That has been the some large part of the appeal of “A Room With a View,” I think. It is part of the appeal of “84 Charing Cross Road,” contributing areola of loving intentions.

There is a considerable satisfaction in the detailing of two disparate lives, the perfect re-creation of the Marks store and staff, the hardly perceptible but inexorable aging of the principals, the chronicling of the New York and London years (the rise of television, the coronation), the clever but seldom too clever cross-cutting between the lives.

But always at the center are the two performances. Hopkins is eloquence itself in what he conveys without speech, but only with pauses and starings into the middle distance. Bancroft is simply terrific as the self-educated woman, in love with words, tough and vulnerable, populating her loneliness with ghostly authors and there enduring creations.

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Bancroft, who began in live television and survived two grim early years under contract at Fox (“Gorilla at Large” in 3-D in 1954; does anyone remember?), has by now created an exemplary body of work, from Gittel in “Two for the Seesaw” on stage to Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate.”

She worked with Hopkins previously in “Young Winston” and “The Elephant Man,” which was another Brooksfilm production. (Whether she worked with Hopkins in “84 Charing Cross Road” is a moot point. They said hello as she arrived to do her London scenes and he completed his.)

Bancroft has fantasies of her own sometimes. “I think, what if Gittel Mosca met Annie Sullivan, and what if I were there at that little tea they’re having. What if Thelma Cate (her role as Sissy Spacek’s mother in “ ‘Night, Mother” met Helene Hanff? Now that would be an interesting get-together.”

She empathized with the Hanff character and checked the script against her own memories of having been a starving actress in New York. “In the old days, I didn’t have a penny. And now I kept saying, ‘What if I was a single actress again--could I afford to do that ?” (But the books were amazingly cheap; you hear the prices in some envy.)

The script added a portrait of a naval officer to Hanff’s apartment, simply to suggest an emotional tie not mentioned in the letters. When Bancroft and the film’s associate producer, Randy Auerbach, invited Hanff to the set, she saw the picture and said, “Actually, he was in the Army.”

“84 Charing Cross Road” has had the ultimate British accolade. It was premiered as a royal command performance for charity on Monday night, in the presence of the Queen.

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