If master documentarian Ken Burns were to fashion a look into British life during World War II, as told in letters from a pair of newlyweds separated during the fight, he might use Posting Letters to the Moon for ideal source material. This unusual narrative of a famous British pair – film actress Celia Johnson and her husband, the acclaimed writer Peter Fleming – come alive during a reading of their wartime letters. Actors Lucy Fleming (daughter of Johnson and Fleming) and her husband, Simon Williams, deliver this fascinating love story with thoughtfulness, pride, and creativity. It’s an unforgettable, poignant look at the war, family, the wrenching moments of separation and loss, and finally, joy.
Celia Johnson was already an established actress on London’s West End, and Fleming was a seasoned travel writer, explorer, and correspondent for The London Times. When he was recruited by The War Office, the two were newly married, and their unhappy separation was compounded by the fears of war – that the temporary parting might become permanent remained obvious but unstated.
Transitioning from stage to film and radio to devote time to her family – which included her suddenly widowed sister and sister-in-law and their children – Johnson accepted roles in films including the British war film In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed. The patriotism of the war effort played out in their individual and collective lives, and the letters speak to perseverance and strain.
For film lovers of a certain age, there are timeless figures of British cinema: Trevor Howard, Noel Coward, Ronald Neame, David Lean, and a fresh young actor named Richard Attenborough. It’s a peculiar tale of war and cinema glamour intertwined. Not only does Celia rush back home to a crowded house of children after being on set all day, there are periodic visits from Uncle Ian: Ian Fleming, who would go onto global renown with his blockbuster character, James Bond. Stationed in Delhi, Peter catches a screening of his wife in In Which We Serve; on the other side of the world, Celia catches sight of him in a newsreel.
Fleming and Williams have done a masterful job of pulling the meat out of her parents’ letters, illustrating not only the randomness madness of war but the banality and beauty of home. They find in the letters a true conversation between these separated spouses. In an era of immediate texts and abbreviated e-mails, the power of the letter and the interminable spaces between their arrival is a reminder of a slower, more thoughtful era. These are two writers at heart, their evocative, painterly, even funny portraits of their daily lives and innermost thoughts making an exquisite story told together.
The piece has a beautifully executed arc. In the lead-up to Normandy and the liberation of Northwest Europe from the grasp of Hitler and the Germans, the two – particularly Celia – become less strained at missing each other. She in particular shows increasing sense of independence. Her confidence as a performer (shooting the acclaimed film Brief Encounter) mirrors the approach of wartime victory. In a moving passage, perfectly read by Lucy, Celia describes the celebrations of D-Day – and closes with news of a cable sent from Celia to Peter that they have even more to celebrate as a family. It’s a soaring, memorable ending that wraps the piece on a doubly high note.