Letters to Juliet (2010): United States – directed by Gary Winick
Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some mild language
Women, for a long time, had to suffer heartily in the movies. They were expected to be housewives and mates (and potential mates). In 1940 Rosalind Russell was a powerful reporter in His Girl Friday [review here], and then Katherine Hepburn took the reins. Nowadays women are required to work in films, and are usually empowered. But so often they rotate between one of three professions: writer, journalist, or fashion industry worker.
Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a writer, or at least wants to be one. The film opens with a montage of her as a fact checker; she verifies information in other people’s articles before they run. She works for The New Yorker and is very thorough. Her boss (Oliver Platt, in a brief bookending cameo) wants her to stay on as a fact-checker, not wishing to give her the opportunity to expand into writing.
He does allow her to take a pre-honeymoon vacation with her fiancee Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal). They are set to be married, but Victor’s new Italian restaurant is about to open. A pre-honeymoon vacation affords them the chance for time together while he simultaneously explores relationships with suppliers in Italy. Upon arrival in Verona he immediately begins dragging her around, much more interested in the food than her.
She wanders the fair city alone, eventually finding Juliet’s wall. There is a balcony above, suggesting the location of William Shakespeare’s famous nighttime scene, and a brick wall into which young women stuff their letters of lament, sorrow, and love. A local organization collects the letters and answers all of them. Sophie, interested in a story, talks her way into their midst. In short order she is allowed to start answering letters.
One day she stumbles upon a hidden brick, and a letter inside that was written 50 years prior. A woman is sorrowful at leaving her young Italian lover and returning home to England to fulfill duties of family and responsibility, but has doubts about her actions. Sophie answers her letter, knowing that much time has passed. Within a few days (Sophie somehow manages to stay in Verona indefinitely, with no worry about logistics or finances and ample time away from her fiancee) the woman in the letter shows up with her young, strapping grandson.
The woman’s name is Claire (Vanessa Redgrave, slightly less sexy than she was in Blowup [review here]), and her grandson is Charlie (Christopher Egan). Sophie’s letter sparked a fire in Claire, making her return to Verona to look for Lorenzo, the lover she left in the lurch so many decades ago. Sophie, still looking for a story, but also genuinely interested in Claire, tags along, much to the chagrin of the pragmatic Charlie. The rest of the story is utterly predictable, as Charlie and Sophie start to notice each other and Sophie realizes Victor is a bit of a prat. Claire remains hopeful about rediscovering Lorenzo, though it will take much of the runtime to get a solid answer. There are some sweet moments along the way, and some astounding Italian scenery. But much of the film consists of stupid people wandering the gorgeous landscapes uttering inanities.
The production as a whole is rather weak. Some of the writing is slap-your-forehead bad, while other moments are out of place and forced. Even interesting statements, like when Claire notes that “life is the messy bits,” comes at an awkward time, totally non-native to the story and characters. This is a romantic comedy, a chick flick, and one mustn’t expect a top-notch production. And even though there are some touching moments I had trouble with one major problem. So many films encourage youngsters to “follower their hearts.” This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but when a person is in a committed relationship, anything involving breaking that trust should be handled maturely and honestly. Too often people are encouraged to leave their current significant others without thinking of the devastating ramifications. Letters to Juliet whitewashes over the difficult moments as Sophie wrestles with herself and her engagement to Victor, and this is disappointing, even in a romantic comedy.
Perhaps I am being too stodgy, though this is a concerning issue. I imagine the targeted audience will enjoy Letters to Juliet. They will like Sophie, and be smitten with Charlie (and his British accent). They will fall in love with Italy, and with love, and these are not necessarily bad feelings for a fairy tale to evoke. But it is a shame the movie is not better crafted and does not deal more thoughtfully with some of the themes it presents. Nevertheless, I imagine the core audience will enjoy the film, even if I didn’t.