Sunday, June 13, 2010
"Letters To Juliet" an Entertaining Fantasy
It's light and sentimental, romantic and inconsequential. Starting with a script that has plot holes large enough to drive an Audi through, "Letters to Juliet" nevertheless delivers a sweet and visually pleasant two hours at the cinema.
Yes, the story is far-fetched, formulaic and a little repetitive through the midsection, and you know how it will all turn out after about 15 minutes. But it does have two great things in its favor: wonderful Italian locations, beautifully, lovingly photographed; and Vanessa Redgrave.
Redgrave's Claire is like a rare bloom on-screen, and she gives this comic drama about finding lost love an authenticity and maturity that lends the film an unexpected emotional depth. She is as beautiful as a delicate ivory carving, her voice slow and clear and full of expression. Her fabulous work in small roles in "Howard's End" and "Atonement" is on display again here, and she carries the film and makes it all seem more plausible than it has a right to be.
The premise is rather interesting. In Verona, outside of the balconied house where Shakepeare's Juliet supposedly lived, women of all ages pin letters to the wall, asking Juliet to help them in their pursuit of love. A group of women known to themselves as "Juliet's Secretaries" take the letters, write responses to them and send them off.
Into this world appears Sophie, a young fact-checker and would-be writer for New Yorker Magazine, who is on a pre-wedding "honeymoon" in Italy with her charming, neglectful and self-centered restauranteur-fiancee. Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, and does her best to deal honestly and directly with a run-of-the-mill character as written. Seyfried has a nice presence on screen, and makes us believe in her wildly unrealistic situation. Gael Garcia-Bernal's role as her fiancee is simply a device, and it is never clear what drew these two together from the start.
After some brisk plot contrivances, Sophie responds to a letter written by Claire (Redgrave) 50 years prior, found forgotten buried in a hole in the wall. Upon receiving Sophie's reply, Claire arrives in Verona to seek out her former lover. Of course, Redgrave is accompanied by a handsome grandson (Chris Egan, easy on the eyes, and with a hint of Heath Ledger about him). He is a priggish anti-romantic who immediately establishes an adversarial relationship with Sophie....and of course they will fall in love...but I'm not spoiling a thing by mentioning this.
A movie like "Letters To Juliet" isn't about suspense, but about the pleasures of experiencing what the film sets up as a romantic fulfillment. It is basically a comedy, and it would serve no purpose in overturning our expectations. We want to be in familiar territory, we want the rare pleasure (these days) of responding to the warmth of a familiar story, improbable though it may be, and laugh and cry on cue. And for the most part, the film doesn't let us down.
I enjoyed some of the detail work here. Scene transitions are scored to old Italian pop songs. The volatility of the Italian temperament is amusingly observed. I liked a shot of champagne bubbles dissolving to a star-filled night-sky. Clare brushes Sophie's hair in a lovely act of caring. And Redgrave, who puts her whole heart into this woman who is haunted by the "what if" of her life, can deliver a line as simple as "What a beautiful day" and make us feel the warmth of the Italian sunshine on our faces.
The film has occasional flashes of intelligence and tenderness that is captured with gorgeeous lighting and terrific on-location work in Verona and Tuscany
The movie's pattern does become tiresome after a while, as our trio travels the countryside to find Claire's old flame, and the young couple bicker and parry. At least, there is the wonderful Italian scenery for aesthetic pleasure, in the company of some amusing characters, and there is nary a weapon in sight. I did wish there was more poetry and less exposition to move the plot along; and that said plot surprised us just a bit more, had been less improbable.
But this is a movie about overcoming loss, and youthful hope, no matter how old one is. And hope is improbable.