The Letter Writer review: Dubai-set romantic drama fails to deliver on its strong premise

Debut feature film from singer-songwriter Layla Kaylif falls apart due to its cliched script and flat performances

Khalifa as Eslam Al Kawarit in The Letter Writer. Photo: Amazon Studios
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There’s a good movie somewhere in The Letter Writer.

The debut feature film from singer-songwriter Layla Kaylif tells the story of Khalifa (Eslam Al Kawarit), a teenage letter writer in Dubai in 1965, who scribes inquiries, complaints, follow-ups, recommendations, apologies, and even divorces for illiterate locals.

Khalifa is approached by garment store owner Mohammad (Muhammad Amir Nawaz) to write a love-letter to Elizabeth Warren (Rosy McEwen), a woman he met briefly in Dubai and quickly fell in love with, only for her to return to London. She left Mohammad her address, though, and he wants to know when she’s going to return to the city.

But when Mohammad shows Khalifa the photo of Elizabeth, he immediately becomes smitten with her, too. This is despite the fact that he has a deep hatred for English people, as the country has a military presence in the UAE that is beginning to wilt.

After learning that he has just been sending her gibberish and ripping him off, Mohammad forces Khalifa to actually write letters to Elizabeth. When she starts to respond, Khalifa’s crush on her becomes deeper.

Khalifa becomes so inspired when writing to Elizabeth, that she begins to fall in love with Mohammad, even though he has nothing to do with the letters. Things are complicated even more by the fact that Elizabeth is engaged to Colonel Henry (Shane Dodd), who just so happens to be working in the British compound near to the market where Mohammad and Khalifa work.

For the opening 20 minutes of the romantic-comedy-drama, it really looks as though Kaylif is going to deliver on the film’s intriguing premise.

Most notably because of the character Khalifa and the performance of Al Kawarit. The young actor is at his most engaging to watch when he’s shouting and arguing with people. Not only is he inherently funny in these moments, but he portrays his anger with an authenticity that most other actors don’t come close to.

Khalifa gets into plenty of disputes throughout The Letter Writer, too. To put it bluntly, he is an irritating menace that gets into clashes with his close friends and family. But rather than making the film annoying, Al Kawarit brings so much humour, edge and unpredictability to the part that it makes The Letter Writer all the more entertaining. It helps that it’s easy to see why so many customers want the extremely talented and deeply poetic Khalifia to write letters for them, which gives audiences a reason to root for him as he tries to find his purpose.

Kaylif also does a good job of establishing the period, the culture clashes between the British officials in the UAE and the locals, and making Khalifa’s large family relatable and funny. But these positive aspects can only paper over the numerous negatives of the film for so long, though.

After its solid start, The Letter Writer quickly falls apart. The script fails to build on its promising start. The tepid dialogue and generic interactions between Elizabeth and Mohammad fail to generate an authentic connection and thus viewers are unable to invest in the story.

The Letter Writer

Director: Layla Kaylif

Stars: Eslam Al Kawarit, Rosy McEwen, Muhammad Amir Nawaz

Rating: 2/5

It also doesn’t help that Kaylif tries to incorporate numerous other plot points into The Letter Writer that, rather than enhancing the film or making the characters feel more complex and interesting, only weigh down and distract from the main story. This is particularly frustrating as there are sub-plots, such as Khalifa’s interest in poetry and the failure of his father’s pearl stall, that do have potential. The Letter Writer tries to explore too much, but by doing so fails to deliver on any.

While there are occasional jokes that’ll make viewers chortle and moments of pathos that’ll provoke them to ponder, the cliched script, flat performances and a musical score that sounds as though it has been taken straight from a soap opera are so ever-present that The Letter Writer is nothing but a woeful waste of a very promising set-up.

The Letter Writer streams on Amazon Prime Video from Wednesday (US) and February 19 (UK).

Updated: February 15, 2024, 10:06 AM
The Letter Writer

Director: Layla Kaylif

Stars: Eslam Al Kawarit, Rosy McEwen, Muhammad Amir Nawaz

Rating: 2/5