Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

John Ruane (director), Deb Cox (writer), Dead Letter Office (1998)

The film Dead Letter Office (1998), directed by John Ruane and written by Deb Cox, is a psychological drama about the difficulty of reconciling with the dislocation and loss experienced in traumatic family relationships.   The film centres on a young woman, Alice, whose father left her as a child.  Her longing for a connection with him sees her write letters, updating him on her life, not realising that he never received them until the letters come back stamped ‘Dead Letter Office’. Consequently, Alice gets a job at the Dead Letter Office in the hope she can find a way to make the connection to her father that she desires.   Instead she finds a new love and a new life. 

The film is about how trauma can create emotionally truncated people who find themselves prevented from emotional growth and establishing positive connections with others.  More optimistically, the film is also about transcending psychological trauma by reconciling with the past and by walking away from bad relationships.  The film shows how this can be done through positive social interactions and by forming new relationships. 

The branch of the postal service known as the Dead Letter Office symbolises lost connections and misconnections, as well as broken, hurt and wounded people.  It is where lost letters and lost people end up – a kind of limbo.  When the principal characters have resolved their traumas, and found new homes and lives, the Dead Letter Office is abolished.  The apparently homeless homing pigeon, named Punt Road, mirrors the lost souls who end up in the Dead Letter Office.  Like the people who needed to heal, the pigeon is also eventually able to find a new home. 

The film also argues that a home is more than a place where one lives.  It is where one is nurtured and loved.  It is where one belongs because one’s key relationships with others happen in that place.

The film also sets out to present a positive image of multicultural Australia (in Melbourne) and to generate sympathy for refugees.  The Australian society represented in the film is ethnically diverse, with many flourishing migrant communities.  Refugees are depicted as special people whose lives have been visited by degrees of suffering that are incomprehensible to Anglo-Australians.  Refugees are therefore deemed worthy of respect, care and consideration.  The romantic lead, Frank, who ends up in a relationship with Alice, is a Chilean refugee who fled the Pinochet regime who, like Alice, overcomes the traumas of his past (the loss of his family in Chile) to become open to the possibility of  a new relationship. 

In addition, Frank is presented as supporting social justice and left-wing causes.  When Frank angrily shuns a Latin-American woman who has right-wing views, the film is suggesting that it is right and understandable to behave this way. 

There is also a feminist subtheme in the film.  Alice is shown to be an assertive woman who is able to initiate relationships with men and determine the terms upon which the relationships take place.  In addition, she is shown to take responsibility for her sexual pleasure in a relationship. She desires and loves men but she is not a victim of men. 

There is also a subtheme presenting a critical appraisal of the impact of economic rationalism on the lives of ordinary working people. The Dead Letter Office is to be modernised, computerised and made more efficient.  As a consequence the people who relied on the Dead Letter Office for the income that sustained their lives will be dismissed and discarded.   The film subtly suggests that the human costs of this approach to policy are too high, and economic rationalism is, from a humanist perspective, irrational and unfair. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Dead Letter Office meaning, Dead Letter Office themes, Dead Letter Office analysis, Dead Letter Office notes