Letters to Juliet

In a couple of years, when Amanda Seyfried has become a bona-fide movie star (some are already anointing her as the next Julia Roberts), she’ll be able to point to Letters to Juliet as the movie that put her there.

The 24-year-old actress has generally played back-up or as part of a talented ensemble, but now she has an entire movie to herself, and she walks away with it.

Not only does she stand out in a movie in which Italy’s stunning countryside is a character all by itself, but she also more than holds-her-own opposite the sublime Vanessa Redgrave… and that’s saying something.

Seyfried is Sophie, a fact-checker/aspiring writer at The New Yorker. She’s on a pre-honeymoon in Verona with her fiancé Victor (Gael García Bernal), who is opening an Italian bistro in New York City and needs to go to Italy to scout the local food and wine. Of course, this leaves Sophie with plenty of time on her hands, so she decides to visit “Juliet’s House”, where every day hundreds of women leave notes asking the Shakespearean heroine for love advice. (Yes, it’s real place.)

This leads Sophie to discover the “Secretaries of Juliet”, a group of women whose sole job it is to hand-write responses to the women’s letters. Since Victor’s still off at wine auctions and cheese-tastings, Sophie volunteers to help the women and finds a letter written 50 years earlier by Claire (Redgrave). Unable to control her inner hopeless romantic, Sophie decides to write back.

Lo and behold, Claire gets the letter and decides (as she’s getting on in years) that this is her last chance to find her long lost Italian love. Accompanying her to Verona is grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan), a cynical schmuck who’s fighting his Gram’s impromptu visit every step of the way (and is none too happy with Sophie, since the whole thing’s her fault in the first place.) Together, they all set out to find the lost love, knowing only his name, Lorenzo Bartolini (which is really no help at all, since apparently that name is the equivalent of  “John Smith” in the U.S.)

Pretty much everything you expect to happen next does indeed happen, but it’s all handled in such a refreshing manner that the cinematic trip is surprisingly well-worth the foregone conclusion.

The fact that Letters to Juliet is directed by Gary Winick makes it even more surprising. Last seen at the controls of 2009’s unbearable Bride Wars, Winick has apparently (thankfully) lost his love for all things silly and slapstick, and the result is a sweet, mature, love story. There’s not a single pratfall or other bit of stupidity to be found (except one little forgivable bit at the end), and that helps make Letters to Juliet one of the more charming and fresh romantic comedies to hit the big screen in a while.

Of course there’s the requisite Colbie Caillat song (or two) and, yes, Taylor Swift’s Romeo-and-Juliet-based “Love Story” features prominently, but they work in the moment. And with the stunning Tuscan countryside front-and-center for the better part of an hour, you’d forgive just about anything anyway.

In the end, Letters to Juliet is the Seyfried and Redgrave show, and they both more than earn their paycheck: Redgrave telling us she’s not yet ready to enter the twilight of her career, and Seyfried showing us why she’ll be around for a good, long while, too.

It’s a match made in Italian heaven.

P.S. That’s Redgrave’s real-life husband Franco Nero as the real long-lost Lorenzo Bartolini.

4/5 stars