Ah, Juliet. The mere mention of the name may make even the most hardened heart a tad wistful at the thought of love won or love lost, while for the true romantics, hearts may go pitter patter and eyes well with tears of joy, or heartache. Juliet is, after all, one-half of the most romantic and enchanted couples of the ages, albeit in literature. Thanks to William Shakespeare, the 14th century story of the Montagues and Capulets and the forbidden and fated love of Romeo and Juliet has endured the ages. Set in the beautiful town of Verona, Italy, Romeo and Juliet have served as the inspiration for lovers, artisans, writers, and just about anyone with any kind of a heart. But Juliet, sweet, sweet Juliet. She has inspired even more.
For decades, letters by the thousands have poured into the little town of Verona, all addressed to Juliet, and all seeking advice of the heart. What are not mailed to “Guilietta, Verona, Italy” are placed on the walls of Juliet’s courtyard as they have been for more than a century. Standing guard awaiting her Romeo, a bronze statue of the lady herself brings hope and good fortune to those who touch her right breast. And thanks to Club di Guilietta, for just as many years, volunteers have been collecting these letters of the heart, and in the name of love and promoting the story of Romeo and Juliet, answering each and every one. There is something timeless about love - and even moreso about Juliet’s legend and letters - that transcends the generations and captures and enchants the imagination, so much so that producers Caroline Kaplan and Ellen Barkin were inspired to pursue Juliet’s story, bringing its purity, beauty and romance to life in the very capable hands of director Gary Winick with LETTERS TO JULIET.
Sophie and Victor have it all. Young and in love, their wedding is just around the corner. Both with successful and time consuming careers - Sophie, a fact checker for The New Yorker and aspiring writer, and Victor, an aspiring chef and restauranteur - they decide to take a pre-wedding vacation, spend some time alone, away from work, away from the hustle and bustle of wedding plans. And what better place to go than one of the most romantic places on Earth - Verona, Italy. After all, not only is there beauty and romance, but Victor can check out vendors and wineries as suppliers for his new restaurant.
It doesn’t take long before the beautiful, doe-eyed Sophie realizes that Victor’s sightseeing ideas are all really work related, and not something in which she wants to partake, so she begs to be let off on her own, a fact that doesn’t disappoint Victor. While out strolling along the cobbled streets, Sophie stumbles into the magical courtyard of Juliet. Entranced, she herself - a wannabe writer - sits in the courtyard for hours, looking for her own inspiration. And as she sits, she watches women of all ages, shapes and sizes coming to the courtyard wall and leaving notes behind. At the end of the day, another young woman gathers the notes in a basket and walks away. Intrigued, the journalist in Sophie follows her and finds herself at the office of the Secretaries of Juliet and learns of the legend and their sacred mission.
With nothing to do while Victor is off on his own, Sophie decides to join the ladies and perhaps even answer some letters, but there’s one letter in particular that connects with her. Written in 1951, the letter was stuffed behind a loose rock in the wall, remaining hidden all these years until literally falling into Sophie’s hands. Touched by the words of a young Claire Smith, Sophie is moved by her story of falling in love with a young dashing Italian, only to walk away rather than take life and love by the reins and make him hers. And Sophie begins to wonder - what has happened to Claire these past 50 years? Soon after answering Claire’s letter, Sophie’s own adventure begins when Claire, now widowed, arrives in Verona with her handsome and single grandson Charlie, determined to meet the Secretary of Juliet who answered her letter.
Inspired by Sophie and her enthusiasm and passion for love, with the help of Sophie and a begrudging over-protective Charlie, Claire sets out across the Italian countryside to find her beloved Lorenzo. And with Victor on his own culinary adventure, and Sophie in the company of Claire and Charlie, could it be that Verona and Juliet are working magic on more than one person in this little troupe?
As we are privy to a picturesque and stunning travelogue of Tuscany, Sophie and Charlie spat like an old married couple while Claire’s eyes twinkle more with each passing day - and even with each disappointment or comedic event - knowing in her heart of hearts, whether he is old and forgetful or still handsome and vigorous, Lorenzo is out there, somewhere.
I can’t imagine anyone but Amanda Seyfried as Sophie. Fresh-faced, doe-eyed, enthusiastic with the grace of an angel, she personifies love and romance. In fact, one can easily envision her as Juliet, complete with all the love, hopes and dreams as created by Shakespeare. Seyfried has a freshness and warmth about her that makes you fall in love with not only Sophie, but the story as well.
As Claire, Vanessa Redgrave is elegance and grace personified. It is her heart and wisdom that draw you ever deeper into the film. You root for Claire. You root for love. You root for a happy ending. It is a joy to watch Redgrave as she exudes motherly love for not only Christopher Egan’s Charlie, but Sophie, nicely complimenting the backstory of the younger characters.
And again, I have to marvel at what the land Down Under is bringing to Hollywood. Christopher Egan is not only easy no the eyes, but as Charlie, his sarcastic and arrogant wooing of Sophie is fun to watch. I couldn't wait to see what zinger each had for the other next. Their chemistry is impeccable. Plus, he more than holds his own against Redgrave, going toe-to-toe with her, humbled like a little boy but trying to be a big boy and protect his grandmom. The interplay is wonderful to watch.
Gael Garcia Bernal easily handles the role of Victor, but his performance pales in comparison to that of the other principal actors, a surprise given his strength in “Rudo y Cursi”. However, his Italian accent is beyond believable! Nice little turn by Oliver Platt as Sophie's New Yorker editor, Bobby. I have yet to ever not enjoy Platt. He adds such a great touch to every part he plays. Of course, not to be missed are the ladies portraying Juliet's secretaries. Led by Luisa Ranieri as Isabella, each is warm, likeable and fun, celebrating the generations and the various aspects of love.
A real coup is Redgrave’s real-life husband, Franco Nero as Lorenzo. Their own love story mirrors that of Claire of Lorenzo as they met in 1967 doing “Camelot.” They had a son together, went their separate ways, lost touch, and then found each other again in 2006, when they finally married. Needless to say, the love in their eyes on camera is as genuine as the love in their hearts.
Written by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan, given their backgrounds, I am more than impressed with what they have created in LETTERS TO JULIET. Rivera, best known for writing “The Motorcycle Diaries” and Sullivan, “Flushed Away”, have melded their respective gifts of drama and comedy, for a perfect blend of light romance. The story is simple, sweet and beautiful. The pacing of the “adventure” in finding Lorenzo is punctuated with some great comedic moments as is the interaction between Seyfried and Egan. Their most spirited dialogue is absolutely delicious. All of the characters are interesting and fully fleshed out and the interaction amongst them all - no matter how minuscule the part - is relevant to the overall story. There is no excess baggage anywhere in the film. Very impressive from a story structure POV, particularly given the limited depth and prior experience from Sullivan and Rivera.
Gary Winick is and ideal director for LETTERS TO JULIET. Establishing himself as more than capable directing a romantic comedy like “13 Going on 30" or heart tucking classic adaptation like “Charlotte’s Web”, Winick has the eye of not only director, but producer. Punctuating that is his prior experience as an editor which has sharpened his eye for storytelling. Expanding on Winick’s strength is the cinematography of Marco Pontecorvo who doesn't have an unflattering light or lens in the entire production. Interestingly, Pontecorvo's work does well in celebrating the natural beauty of not only Verona and the Italian countryside, but the natural beauty of Redgrave and Seyfried. Winick and Pontecorvo envelope the film in the warmth and glow of the Tuscan sun and capture the twinkling stars of a moonlit night in the eyes of both Seyfried and Redgrave. It’s magical.
Simply stunning! A beautiful story that’s beauteous to watch. LETTERS TO JULIET celebrates the magic of love, casting a spell over one's heart. This is a love letter for the ages.
Sophie - Amanda Seyfried
Claire - Vanessa Redgrave
Charlie - Christopher Egan
Victor - Gael Garcia Bernal
Lorenzo - Franco Nero
Directed by Gary Winick. Written by Tim Sullivan and Jose Rivera.