How you feel about the concept of long-lost soul mates may determine how you feel about Letters to Juliet, the latest from Bride Wars director Gary Winick and Motorcycle Diaries writer Jose Rivera (a combo that fits better than you'd think). It's a romantic comedy set in Tuscany and the home of Shakespeare's star-crossed amours Romeo and Juliet, Verona, Italy (the "City of Love").
A fact checker for The New Yorker, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) longs to write and thinks her pre-honeymoon in Verona with her fiancé, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), could inspire a story that will impress her boss. Victor, reinventing the noodle behind a curtain of pasta in the kitchen of his new restaurant, is clearly in love -- with food. Seconds after arriving in Verona he's arranged tours with his suppliers; instead of taking Sophie sightseeing he drags her to cheese cellars. So Sophie explores Verona solo and wanders into the courtyard of Casa di Giulietti (Juliet's house), where women scribble letters with teary-eyed earnestness or playfully pose with one hand on a Juliet statue's breast (for luck). Of course there's a balcony, from which one female sobs, "Romeo, where art thou?" in Italian. The scribblers post "Dear Juliet" pleas for love advice on a stone wall, where their letters linger until a lady with a basket carries them away. Intrigued, Sophie tails her into a restaurant and discovers Juliet's secretaries: women who answer the letters. A nurse deals with illness while a veteran wife tackles marital strife -- each secretary has their specialty. They joke that "men are like wine because they take years to mature" and invite Sophie to help with their duties. While gathering letters, Sophie uncovers a 50-year-old note from Claire, a regretful English girl who promised to run away with her Italian love, Lorenzo, but then got cold feet (fearing her parents' disapproval) and left Lorenzo waiting in vain. Sophie answers the letter and a few days later meets Charlie (Christopher Egan), present-day Claire's over-protective grandson. Charlie berates Sophie for her reply, which has inspired Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) to foolishly return to Italy to find Lorenzo.
Charlie's a cynical, stuffed British shirt who derides Sophie's fearless romanticism -- it's dislike at first sight. Or is it? When Claire warmly agrees to let Sophie chronicle her search for Lorenzo, animosity soon turns to affection ... you can probably guess the rest. Letters to Juliet relies on typical rom-com themes like pre-destined love (never mind the unlikelihood that teen lovers will be compatible decades later), as well as a much-used Romeo and Juliet balcony motif and Taylor Swift's "Love Story" ballad (how could it not?). Yet while there's nothing surprising about the plot, the film has some unexpected redeeming qualities.
Tuscany's verdant vineyards, Sienna's hilltops, and Verona's ancient corridors glow with a light so lovely it's impossible not to swoon. Film icon Vanessa Redgrave is also luminous -- her eyes, belying their years, radiate youthful passion. With an almost equally alluring ebullience, Seyfried makes a predictable character seem sincere, while Egan does his best to be believable in his role. Their comic chemistry works well and a montage of "I am Lorenzo Bartolini" misfits who share Claire's long-lost love's name but aren't him aids the film's lighthearted humor. Letters to Juliet is a heady homage to true-love fairytales overflowing with optimism and faith in romantic destiny. Fans of the genre will find it exquisitely intoxicating, and even moviegoers who prefer a more genuine romance may find the film more charming than they'd expected.