When it comes to romantic films – be they comedy or drama – there’s little one can do to make them fresh and interesting. We all know the formula: “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl”, and Letters to Juliet doesn’t stray far from this. The fact that you’ve got two of these “boy/girl” things going on at the same time is one slight innovation here. There’s also the fact that one of these is actually a “girl meets boy, girl loses boy…” story. Then there’s the use of some interesting facts to act as background for the movie. These are that there really is a Casa Juliet in Verona where women post letters to Shakespeare’s character about their heartbreaks. But more importantly, there actually is a group of secretaries called the Juliet’s Club who answer the letters left there – and not just a few of them, but every single one! In fact, this movie was inspired by a non-fiction book by Lise and Ciel Friedman which told the story of Casa Juliet and her secretaries.
But that’s when the realism ends with this film, and where flights of fancy take over. It is difficult to believe that some random tourist (Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried of “Mama Mia” fame) would be taken in by these secretaries (even by accident), and even more absurd that she would find (stuck behind a loose brick in the wall) a letter left unanswered for 50 years. Then, out of all the languages possible, this note just happens to be written in English, and therefore our American girl can be the ‘secretary’ to reply. That would be enough to swallow, but the reply actually gets to the woman who sent it – Claire (Vanessa Redgrave). Moreover, Claire immediately ups and flies from England to Italy with her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) to see if she can finally meet up with the “one that got away” again.
Without even watching this film, you can imagine what comes next. Yes, it’s a trek across Italy to find the correct Lorenzo Bartolini (a name which proves to be less than unique), while the Charlie and Sophie go from outright hate to… you guessed it! And who doesn’t remember that the course of true love never runs smoothly, with Sophie having come to Italy with her fiancé! That he neglects her because he’s too busy making contacts and buying things for the restaurant he’s about to open in New York, makes her taking off for the Tuscan hillsides more feasible. And that’s what you have, through to the clichéd end.
From all this you might expect to hear that this is basically a disaster at worst, or chick flick of the lowest kind at best. Thankfully, this isn’t at all the case. Instead, what we have here is a very charming and intelligent film, which is a delight to behold. Italy is certainly one of the most romantic countries in the world, and Tuscany is one of its most breathtaking regions, and as such, the perfect place for a good romance. On a visual level alone, this is worth a look if only because of the stunningly beautiful scenery.
If that wasn’t enough, the cast seems to lend themselves well to the material, and no one seems to outshine anyone else. There is one exception, however, in the case of Victor, Sophie’s fiancé, who switches between a Spanish and Italian accent throughout the movie. While this is explained away in the film, it was still annoying, and Gael Garcia Bernal, while terribly cute, isn’t terribly likeable and borders on going over the top in almost every scene but his last. Other than this, everyone else played their parts very naturally and a pleasure to watch.
Of course, this being a romance, one cannot help but allow certain clichés in the script. For instance, why is it that within ten minutes of the film, everyone in the audience and on the screen knows that Sophie and Victor will never make it together, except for Sophie and Victor? Yes, it has to be in the movie that way, or it doesn’t allow for suspense, but they could have made the couple seem at least a bit more compatible, and Victor a bit more loveable, as that would have added to the tension. Then there is the typical formulistic ending, which I’m sure you can figure out for yourself – almost in detail if you think a minute about the original story of Romeo & Juliet.
But what saves this from being totally saccharine is how natural the dialogue is, and how we hardly ever feel we can predict what anyone is going to say. Vanessa Redgrave in particular has some marvelously unexpected lines, and it is this sort of thing that keeps us watching. But most of all, the biggest fun is what we see when Claire meets with each of the different Lorenzos during her search for hers. In all, the script is very clever for a romantic comedy.
Between the settings, the acting and the script, this ends up being a highly enjoyable, “feel-good” movie that borders on being a chick-flick, but that certain guys would like as well. If you’re looking for slap-stick and laugh out loud hysterics, you won’t find it here, but it is amusing in many parts, and the 105 minutes will just fly by. As one reviewer on IMDb says, the only way a romance movie can really work is if you, as a viewer, wish you were in the place of one those characters you see on the screen. Certainly in this double romance story, there is something that everyone can identify with, and who wouldn’t want to find love in Tuscany? While not absolutely perfect, I can give this a very strong four stars out of five and recommend it to all those who found or are looking for true love!
(PS: Now that I’ve seen this movie, I’m anxious to buy the book that inspired it – even if it is non-fiction!)