An American girl on vacation in Italy finds an unanswered "letter to Juliet" – one of thousands of missives left at the fictional lover's Verona courtyard, which are typically answered by a the "secretaries of Juliet" – and she goes on a quest to find the lovers referenced in the letter.
One scene from Gary Winick’s Letters to Juliet absolutely nails just how 'old-fashioned' this old-fashioned romance really wants to be. Returning from a dreamy stroll around a lush, autumnal New York, our heroine is stopped by her publishing company’s front-desk clerk, who thrusts a handful of crumpled paper scraps towards her. "Here," says the receptionist, "are your phone messages."
It’s not the first nor last time Winick’s film prompts the question, "Will modern moviegoers really believe this?" That the answer is most often "Hell, no!" suggests that Letters to Juliet will play convincingly to only the most dewy-eyed of romance tragic (but full credit to Winick for sticking doggedly to that giddy air of pseudo-reality occupied by movies in general, and movie romances in particular).
Amanda Seyfried’s last two films – Mamma Mia and Dear John – have spun on the life-changing effects of snail-mail, so the young actress is quickly becoming every postie’s favourite starlet. Here she plays Sophie, a timid fact-checker who yearns to someday be a published author. On the eve of marriage to the passionate but self-centred Victor (Gael García Bernal), the couple decides to have a pre-wedding honeymoon in the achingly beautiful city of Verona, Italy.
The film doesn’t touch on how the two can afford to live in Manhattan digs and fund a European vacation, a wedding, then a honeymoon, given her lowly professional standing and his over-spending on a dream restaurant project, but such concerns in the land of romance-whimsy are incidental.
After being dragged by Victor to visit potential produce suppliers on their first day in Italy, Sophie makes her own fun and stumbles across a small enclave filled with teary women attaching notes to a wall. It transpires that this is the courtyard which inspired William Shakespeare’s famous balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet, and it’s now a mecca for the broken-hearted and lovesick. Having spent the best part of a day watching the drama of true love unfold before her, Sophie observes a woman collect the notes and follows her to the headquarters of The Secretaries of Juliet – a volunteer group who take it upon themselves to answer all the letters.
As Victor continues to ignore her, Sophie joins the Secretaries and discovers a 50-year-old note written to a farmer’s son Lorenzo Barbitini from his 'English rose' Claire, hidden behind a loose brick in the wall (again, it is inconceivable that the Secretaries would not have discovered it sooner, but we push on). Sophie pens a reply and she’s joined in Verona by Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her grandson, Charlie ('Home and Away’ alumni Christopher Egan). This is utterly implausible, as Sophie and Victor are only in Verona for a short time yet her letter has reached England and now Charlie and his 'Nana’ are in her face. But we push on.
With visions of rekindling a decades-old romance, Sophie, Charlie and Claire – convinced that her Lorenzo would never move far from his birth home (!) – set off on a road trip to visit all the Lorenzo Barbitinis they can uncover. Apparently, Italy has neither operator assistance nor a phone book, which would have saved a great deal of driving...but...we...push...on....
From this point, the inevitabilities of Winick’s film fall into place all too conveniently – the insufferable Charlie (Egan, puffing out his chest and putting on a plummy Brit accent, is awful in the role) and Sophie warm to each other; Claire discovers her Lorenzo (the handsome Franco Nero, who has aged wonderfully since his 70s heyday); and Sophie discovers her real self. There is not a smidgeon of doubt that all will prevail, and Winick ladles on the cliches with shameless abandon – the soaring and sickly-sweet music; cutesy dialogue dubbed over endless shots of a car disappearing into a golden, rural horizon (Marco Pontecorvo’s lush, postcard-cinematography is superb); and (sigh) a wedding, though thankfully Winick handles the event with far more subtlety than his last cinematic trip down the aisle, 2009’s execrable Bride Wars.
Seyfried, a lovely, likable actress whose striking similarities to Dakota Fanning would make her perfect for Charlotte’s Web 2, wavers in conviction as Sophie – she fades into the background when paired with a boisterous Bernal; she seems to be looking for the exit when opposite Egan; happily, though, she does seem inspired when opposite Redgrave and they share the film’s best, most heartfelt moments together.
Europe’s rejuvenating effects on a staid American tourist have been depicted many times before and in far better films (Dodsworth, 1936; Before Sunrise, 1995; American Dreamer, 1984; Under the Tuscan Sun, 2003) but Letters to Juliet’s narrow focus and fumbled execution don’t warrant comparison with the best of them. It’s an okay mum-daughter afternoon at the movies, at best.