A postal office for undelivered mail becomes a metaphor for unrequited love and unfulfilled dreams in this tart romantic comedy. The very basis of “Dead Letter Office” may sound clunky — and could prove a marketing challenge — but, thanks to the tangy, intelligent direction of John Ruane and fine lead performances from Miranda Otto and U.S. import George DelHoyo, the result is almost entirely successful. Nevertheless, strong reviews and marketing that points up the work’s distinctive qualities will be required if the film is to make a commercial mark in the crowded Aussie cinema scene. Pic was well received as the opening night attraction of the Brisbane film fest, and scored with audiences at the Melbourne fest a few days earlier.
If ever a film played better than it seems on paper, it’s this one. Otto plays Alice, a lonely young woman who’s been trying to locate her long-lost father for several years. Letters to him have been returned, stamped by the dead letter office. And it’s to this office that she applies, successfully, for work, and where most of the action unfolds.
In multicultural Australia, it’s no surprise that the office is headed by a political refugee from Chile. Frank(DelHoyo) is as lonely in his own way as is Alice, and they’re obviously destined to be soul mates, but not before quite a bit of confusion has been placed in the path of their relationship. The other members of the office staff (Georgina Naidu, Syd Brisbane, Nicholas Bell) act as a kind of chorus to the main characters.
The story is simple enough, but accomplished playing and inventive direction keep the viewer entranced. One of the most interesting scenes takes place in a club for Chilean expatriates that Frank, who lost his family to the junta in his homeland, occasionally attends. At a dance, he meets a woman from Argentina (Vanessa Steele), and they hit it off until he gradually realizes that she supported the military officers who, in the ’70s, terrorized her country.
In a particularly welcome piece of casting, Miranda Otto’s father, Barry Otto , appears in a brief scene as Alice’s long-lost, totally irresponsible dad. Though in itself a conventional scene, the Ottos and Ruane make of it an unexpectedly powerful and emotional moment.
“Dead Letter Office,” attractively photographed by Ellery Ryan, constantly surprises with scenes like these, and the result is a light comedy that has real emotional depth. An important element is Chris Kennedy’s production design, in which the chaotic postal office — which seems not to have changed since the beginning of the century — assumes a life of its own. Inhabited by a friendly pigeon, the place reeks of decades of missed mail and disillusionment.