© 2010 Ray Wong
Unabashedly romantic and truly a fantasy -- written and directed by three men, no less -- Letters to Juliet may be predictable as ice cream, but it's just as delicious.
Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a fact-checker at The New Yorker, but she aspires to become a writer. She's also engaged to Italian chef Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal). They decide to take their "honeymoon" early because Victor will be opening his first restaurant soon and will be extremely busy. Once they arrive at Verona -- the City of Love where Romeo and Juliet lived in Shakespeare's timeless tale -- Victor is more interested in talking with his suppliers and sampling wine and local cuisines that Sophie feels neglected.
While visiting the House of Juliet, Sophie meets a group of women who work there as "Juliet's secretaries." Their job is to answer all the letters posted on the wall at the house. Soon, Sophie finds a 50-year-old letter tucked inside the wall that has never been answered, written by "Claire" who described herself as a scared young girl who ran away from her true love. Sophie decides to answer the letter. Upon receiving her letter, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), now in her 60s, and her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) arrive at Verona looking for the man she loves, Lorenzo Bartonini (Franco Nero).
Claire's story is so sweet and romantic that Sophie decides to tag along so she can write about it, to the displeasure of Charlie. He thinks Sophie is disrupting their lives and creating unnecessary expectations. Mostly, Charlie is worried his widowed grandmother is going to be disappointed or, worse, heartbroken again. At the same time, the seemingly argumentative American and Brit find themselves attracted to each other, and that they share something in common after all.
Amanda Seyfried (Dear John) is emerging as one of the ingenues specializing in romantic comedies or love stories that feature exotic and gorgeous locations. However, she doesn't just have a pretty face; Seyfried can act. Her performance is understated and nuanced and affecting. She looks and acts like the girl next door and that's exactly why she's so relatable.
Christopher Egan (Eragon), on the other hand, is a bit too smug -- at least in the beginning -- and generic. His "Brit" (the actor is Australian) comes across as a bit lightweight and fluffy. Not to mention he is a dead ringer for Heath Ledger (down to the accent); it's distracting. Still, Egan is a nice counterpart to Seyfried's Sophie, and the couple looks good together. Gael Garcia Bernal (Bad Education) steals every scene he's in. His passionate portrayal of an Italian chef crazy about food is funny, and he makes us hard not to root for him. The writers try to make us "choose" Charlie over Victor (he's negligent, more interested in food than Sophie, etc.) but Bernal's charming performance makes us wonder who really is a better man, all things considered.
Despite the fine performances by the younger cast, the movie belongs to Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement). She's simply radiant, luminous, and effervescent, and her performance is so subtle, nuanced, and wonderfully thoughtful. She's a marvel in everything she does, and she really lights up the screen with her portrayal of Claire, a woman in her final years looking for the love she's lost decades ago. We just can't take our eyes off her. Interestingly, neither can't the Italian men who ever met her, including the real Lorenzo, played by Redgrave's real-life husband Franco Nero (Die Hard 2).
Written by Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Tim Sullivan (Flushed Away), the screenplay is surprisingly fantastical (as in "dreamy") and romantic, something you don't quite expect from a couple of dudes. The story focuses on two women with an age difference of almost 50 years, and it feels genuine despite the contrived situations. Is the plot clichéd? Very. Is it effective? Very. There's nothing more fun and magical than a road trip in beautiful Tuscany against the backdrops of lush hills and glorious vineyards. There's also something whimsical and hopelessly wishful-thinking about the story, but it works despite being predictable. There's no doubt in our minds what will happen to Claire, Charlie or Sophie, and yet we're happy to see them come true.
Yet Rivera and Sullivan did not bog us down with cheesy dialogue or cookie-cutter scenarios. While it may lack suspense and mystery, there are turns and conflicts, disappointments and heartbreaks, joy and wonderment. Also, they have done a fantastic job in keeping it PG clean. It's rather refreshing, actually, to see something purely romantic and sweet without a lot of cynicism and crude humor. It harks back to the romantic era of Hollywood.
Director Gary Winick follows his last dud, Bride War, with this sweet confection, and that's a nice career move. Stay away from silly cynicism and rudeness and keep with the sweet and romantic. He really can't go wrong with the locations, though. The cinematography also serves it well. Every frame looks like a postcard. The soundtrack also is very appropriate, with romantic interludes as well as heartfelt pop songs.
If nothing else, Letters to Juliet will boost tourism in Verona. I can see flocks of women and their men traveling there to recapture their sparks (not to mention with the dropping Euros, it's also easier on the wallet). That's something Romeo and Juliet would approve.
Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael Garcia Bernal, Franco Nero, Louisa Ranieri
Director: Gary Winick
Writers: Jose Rivera, Tim Sullivan
MPAA Rating: PG for brief rude behavior, some language and incidental smoking
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.7 out of 10