It’s amazing how movies work on people. Letters to Juliet is a contrived, mushy, predictable story of love and romance, and yet it thoroughly won me over. This is strange given the fact that I’m usually so critical of romances, especially if they’re trying to be funny. But unlike the desperate comedy of films like My Life in Ruins, 27 Dresses, and the newly released The Back-Up Plan, this movie keeps its humor low key, reserving it for only such moments that it’s actually needed. On the same token, it doesn’t go for the needlessly weepy melodrama of movies like Dear John and The Last Song, both based Nicholas Sparks tearjerkers; it’s all rather sweet and charming and fun, a nice way to spend 101 minutes away from the house, especially if you’re with a date.
The story begins in New York City, where Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young fact checker for The New Yorker, dreams of becoming a featured writer. She’s engaged to a developing chef named Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), who seems pleasant enough but is really more interested in micromanaging the opening of a new restaurant than in spending time with his bride to be. They travel to Verona on what was supposed to be a pre-honeymoon but, for Victor, ended up becoming a scouting mission for the best wines, olive oils, and truffles. The pre-honeymoon idea is enough of a red flag, I think. Honestly, who actually goes on something called a “pre-honeymoon”?
For Sophie, it becomes the perfect opportunity to write a story for her magazine. One day, she happens upon the house where Juliet Capulet is said to have lived and watches as emotional women from all over the world post relationship letters to a stone wall. She then becomes involved with a group of women who collect the letters and respond to them one by one. They call themselves Juliet’s Secretaries, which, if you ask me, is actually a cute name. Entirely by accident, Sophie discovers a letter from 1957, written by a love-struck but frightened girl named Claire who left her beloved behind and returned home to England. Sophie is touched and decides to write back, apparently confident that, after a period of over fifty years, Claire still lives at the same address.
As it turns out, this is the case. A few days later, Sophie is approached by Claire’s grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan), a cold and bitter young man who disapproves of what Sophie has done. Because of her reply, his grandmother has returned to Verona and is on a quest to find her lost love – an utterly foolish idea if there ever was one. Undaunted, Sophie follows Charlie and meets Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), quite a bit older now but no less in the throes of romance. Kindly and gracious, she immediately takes a liking to Sophie and, despite Charlie’s objections, lets her tag along on a cross-country search for her old flame, whose name is Lorenzo Barotlini. Sophie knows that Victor won’t mind her going; he’s too involved in food hunts and wine auctions to take notice.
If you know anything about movie romances, then chances are you have a pretty good idea of where this is going, so I don’t need to describe any more of the plot. Suffice it to say, this is a wholly delightful story with appealing characters, and it’s all set against the backdrop of picturesque Italian landscapes. It was an experience that, however hokey, I was glad to be a part of. I have to treasure feelings like that because, quite frankly, I don’t often have them; I’m usually pointing out all the ways in which the audience is coerced, if not shamelessly manipulated, into emotional submission. But even I have a sentimental side, and I’m glad there are movie like this that allow me to indulge in it.
I was moved, for instance, by the rekindled love between Claire and Lorenzo (Franco Nero), which mirrors the real life relationship between the actors who played them. Back in 1967, Redgrave and Nero met on the set of Camelot and became romantically involved. They finally married in 2006. Considering the film’s theme of officially claiming a love that had always been, can you honestly say this doesn’t warm your heart just a little? Watching them together onscreen, you truly do believe that they’re in love, which is more than I can say for most modern romance stories between young people who in all likelihood wouldn’t know love if it came up and bit them.
Letters to Juliet is by no means groundbreaking cinema, but boy, is it charming. I liked the story, rote though it may be. I cared about the characters, young and old. I appreciated the fact that, in spite of his standoffish take on Victor, Bernal didn’t play him as a crude, unlovable caricature. Most of all, I enjoyed the chemistry between Seyfried, Egan, Redgrave, and Nero. I can imagine a movie like this being used in the field of neuroscience, specifically in how it affects dopamine and endorphin levels, both thought to play a part in how much pleasure a person feels. I suspect most participants would show an increase. No matter how silly they may seem, some movies just make you feel good inside.