In Gary Winick’s romantic trifle Letters to Juliet (2010), Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, a New Yorker fact-checker and aspiring writer who travels with her budding-restaurateur fiance Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) to Verona for a pre-wedding vacation. Once there, Sophie is enchanted by a public practice whereby young women leave letters asking romantic advice of Shakespeare’s Juliet; their missives are answered by a volunteer group of women styled “Juliet’s Secretaries.” Sophie discovers a letter by an English girl named Claire, who, it emerges, gave up her Italian lover, Lorenzo, and returned to England. Though the letter was written fifty years before, Sophie replies to it and, lo and behold, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) appears in Italy with her uptight grandson (Christopher Egan), eager to find out the fate of her old beau. With Victor distracted by business, the trio set off on a quest to track down Lorenzo.
As the above synopsis might indicate, Letters to Juliet (2010) has been released strategically to target a very specific demographic: those already suffering from football fatigue. The film suggests a Nicholas Sparks-meets-Mamma Mia! hybrid, but it motors along with a moderate amount of charm and appeal for much of its running time. Though there’s a sense throughout that Winick and the screen-writers Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan aren’t making as much of the material as they might, you begin to care for the three central characters and to enjoy their interactions.
So it’s unfortunate that the film blows it with a shamelessly contrived and poorly staged conclusion that makes you feel embarrassed for having succumbed. (It’s the kind of movie you wish you’d left about ten minutes before the end.) Given the premise, you might have expected the film to inject some of the craziness, darkness, magic and melancholy of Shakesperean drama (or comedy) into the proceedings but the best the film can offer, finally, is a painful pastiche of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. The recourse to rom-com formula is certainly dispiriting, but for the most part, the movie is a pleasant, exceedingly picturesque diversion and it boasts some appealing performances. Seyfried is lovely (though you can’t help but wish that someone would give this actress a really decent film to be in), Garcia Bernal is amusing as a guy who clearly prefers food to his fiancee, and even the rather stilted Egan begins to grow on you (a good thing, since the plot requires him to be an irritant initially). And Redgrave is, well ... radiant as always. The film plays off of the actress's personal history in one significant piece of casting, but what counts more than that is the spontaneity and soulfulness that she brings to her scenes. Investing the film’s corniest dialogue with the weight and consideration that she might give to a Shakespeare sonnet, her acting - and sheer star quality - transcend the banality of the scenario. “She’s awesome,” breathes Seyfried’s character at one point. The viewer can only agree.