If Nicholas Sparks ever wrote a romantic comedy it might be something like “Letters to Juliet.” Mixing an “it’s never too late to find true love” motif and other Spark’s standards like unopened letters and long lost love with some light comedy combines the best of what passes for romance on screen these days. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not exactly “Doctor Zhivago,” or even “When Harry Met Sally,” but it ain’t “Leap Year” either, and that’s a good thing.
“Mama Mia’s” Amanda Seyfried is Sophie, a pretty young fact checker at The New Yorker with secret ambitions to become a writer. She’s engaged to a workaholic chef (Gael García Bernal) who says he wants to “reinvent the noodle.” Taking a pre-honeymoon in Verona, Italy—he’ll be too busy to go after they tie the knot—they drift apart. He becomes engrossed in the food culture of Italy, she with The Secretaries of Juliet, a group of women who answer letters from the lovelorn left at the Juliet Balcony. When Sophie discovers a letter from 1957 her reply to Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) prompts the now grandmother to return to Italy after fifty years to search for her long lost love Lorenzo. Sensing a story Sophie tags along with Claire and her obnoxious grandson (Christopher Egan) as they search for Claire’s soul mate in the Tuscan countryside.
“Letters to Juliet” is essentially a romantic road trip through Tuscany which is lovely and takes your mind off the predictable story that is playing out in front of the luscious scenery. The love stories, (That’s right! SPOILER! There’s two of them!), move along pretty much as you expect they are going to, but while the progression of the narrative may be a tad stale the movie has more to offer than, to paraphrase Paul McCartney, silly love stories.
Beautiful scenery aside the movie is anchored by two very different performances. As Claire—described by her cheeky grandson as “Churchill in a dress”—Vanessa Redgrave does a nice job at showing steely determination, vulnerability and a lovely frailness. She is playing someone with a lifetime of experience and isn’t afraid to allow disappointment and sorrow as well as wisdom and joy shine through in her luminous performance.
On the other end of the scale is Amanda Seyfried, as the fresh-faced Sophie, a young person with hardly any experience. Seyfried is refreshingly natural and believable as a person experiencing their first life altering event.
As for the supporting cast, Egan doesn’t add much more than an iffy English accent and a strong jawline, Bernal is a caricature and Nero isn’t on screen long enough to make that much of an impression, but no matter, the movie works best when Seyfried and Redgrave are on screen together.
You’ll know how “Letters to Juliet” is going to end before the opening credits have rolled but in its quiet moments—as in a scene where Claire brushes Sophie’s hair—it transcend the clichés of the script and unearths some genuine heart.