Appellate Judge Tom Becker wrote a bunch of letters to Juliette Binoche, but all he got back was this lousy restraining order.
What if you had a second chance to find true love?
After contemporary romantic comedies, perhaps my least favorite genre is contemporary romantic drama. The key word here is "contemporary." At the risk of betraying my heterogametic chromosomal make up, I admit a real fondness for some movies once somewhat sneeringly referred to as "woman's pictures"—Now, Voyager, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Summertime, Two for the Road, and Waterloo Bridge, for instance. I'm sure my affection for these, and similar, films is helped enormously by the talent involved—leading ladies like Bette Davis, Gene Tierney, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, and Vivien Leigh are in a class by themselves. Maybe it's also that they were playing "modern women" at a time when "modern" wasn't defined by Sex and the City and self-conscious cuteness. But there was a complexity to these films that's lacking now—they were geared for adults, not overripe children, and were able to trade on sentiment without falling into a swamp of sap, or resorting to cynicism to be hip.
The "romantic" films that I see now tend to blur together. Actors and actresses seem to be cast more on physical appeal than acting chops, depth—of both character and situation—is sorely lacking, and gimmicks tend to stand in recognizable emotions.
Letters to Juliet is yet another gimmicky contemporary romance with blandly appealing leads, and a few conflicts that are unremarkably resolved. But this film does have something special going for it: a charming, heartfelt supporting performance by one of the greatest actresses of our time.
Facts of the Case
Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Chloe) is an aspiring writer engaged to workaholic restaurateur Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal, The Motorcycle Diaries). They take a vacation to Italy, but Victor is so busy acquainting himself with cuisine that Sophie finds herself being neglected. She happens upon the Wall of Juliet (of Romeo and… fame), where women leave letters about their romantic concerns. Sophie learns that there are "Secretaries of Juliet" who take the letters and answer them, and since she's bored (and an aspiring writer), she offers to help.
While pulling letters off the wall, Sophie dislodges a brick and discovers a 50-year-old missive from a British teen-ager named Claire, who'd written to Juliet of her decision to not run away with a boy named Lorenzo. Sophie writes Claire an encouraging reply about the timelessness of love, hoping that the woman hasn't changed addresses in the past half century.
Imagine Sophie's surprise when the now elderly Claire (Vanessa Redgrave, Howard's End) shows up. Apparently, she didn't move after all. She's decided to take a second shot at love and try to hunt down Lorenzo. Claire is certain that Lorenzo remained in the area; even so, there are dozens of men with his first and last name to wade through. So Sophie, Claire, and Claire's handsome but snotty grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan, Eragon), take to the Italian countryside in search of the right Lorenzo.
Along the way, Sophie learns a few things about herself, while Charlie—who disliked Sophie at first sight—gets a few life lessons of his own.
There is a moment in a good romance film—or a film with a strong romance subplot—that just makes you believe, that carries you away, that temporarily checks even the most cynical among us: the double flip in Holiday, the kiss in the wine cellar in Notorious, Elizabeth Taylor murmuring "Tell Mama" to Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, the train scene in Since You Went Away, Frederic March's return to Myrna Loy in The Best Years of Lives, for instance. Letters to Juliet is not an especially good romance film, or a particularly good film at all, but it contains a great moment that helps transcend its ordinariness.
"The moment" occurs about two-thirds of the way in, when Claire encounters a man from her past. It's manipulative as all get out and not hard to see coming, but thanks to the luminous Vanessa Redgrave, it is a genuine and deeply affecting scene. It's played with few words, but Redgrave's eyes, her facial expressions, her movements convey such profound emotion that dialogue isn't necessary.
When an actress of Redgrave's talent and stature takes a role in a film like Letters to Juliet, expectations are high, though the results can be disappointing. Happily, Director Gary Winick (Bride Wars) gives the actress ample screen time and room to build her character rather than using her as a prop or device. Redgrave takes what could have been a hackneyed character in a cookie-cutter rom-dram-com and turns it into something approximating art. Now in her 70s, she is still remarkably beautiful, with such a quietly commanding presence that her young co-stars all but fade into the background. Her husky voice and perfectly modulated timing add resonance to lines that could easily have fallen flat in less capable hands. This is a masterful, moving performance.
In an inspired bit of casting, Redgrave's real-life love, husband Franco Nero, plays one of the Lorenzos. Nero and Redgrave had a very public and slightly scandalous long-term relationship beginning in the late '60s, and had a son together. They separated for years but remained close enough that Nero "gave away" Redgrave's daughter, Natasha Richardson, at her wedding to Liam Neeson, and at some point they became involved again, finally marrying in 2006. This personal history adds depth and intimacy to the characters' history, just as knowing that Redgrave recently lost her daughter, her brother, and her sister makes even more poignant the characters' observations on missing people now gone from her life.
Besides Redgrave and some lovely location shooting in Italy, most everything else about Letters to Juliet is pretty unexceptional. Seyfried makes a perky and likable heroine, though Bernal is wasted as the pleasant fiancé who's just not "the right one." As the "right one," Egan is blandly appealing, going through the usual "I hate you/I love you" motions. He and Seyfried don't have a whole lot of chemistry, their pairing dictated by the demands of the genre. You know how this is going to turn out from the second they meet, but it's a pleasant enough journey, and there are enough touching and funny encounters with the various Lorenzos to make it worthwhile.
The disc is a Blu-ray/DVD combo flipper. I watched the Blu-ray, which offered a good-looking 1080p image with nice colors and deep blacks. The DTS-HD Master Audio track is just fine for this dialogue-heavy film. The DVD specs are 2.35:1 anamorphic image and a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio track, and from the little I checked out, all is good here as well.
For supplements, there's a subtitled commentary with Seyfried and Winick; a "making of"; a featurette on the book on which the film is based, which gives some background on the Secretaries of Juliet; and deleted and extended scenes.
The scenery's pretty and Redgrave is sublime, but beyond those virtues, Letters to Juliet is nothing to write home about. Romance fans could do a lot worse, but the rest of us can do a lot better.
Thanks to Vanessa Redgrave, this one is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
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