Prepare to be delighted. Honey-dipped Letters to Juliet is so thoroughly charming that true love seems like like it’s just around the corner, while getting published in The New Yorker is simply one submission away. In this story, the heart knows no obstacles — and neither does the movie, with its delicately witty take on inter-generational dynamics and boundless belief in fairy-tale romance. Set in the idyllic Italian countryside, Juliet’s world is where relationships blossom among fields of gold and truth is found beneath the stars.
Doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried stars as Sophie, an aspiring writer who’s engaged to the wrong guy and desperately wants to move up the ranks at her hum-drum magazine job. Her fortunes change when she takes a fateful trip to Verona (the setting for Romeo and Juliet) with Victor (Gael García Bernal), her husband-to-be. Getting more neglect than amore from her foodie of a fiancé, she soon finds her own fun with a group of ladies who answer letters from the love-lorn addressed to Shakespeare’s fabled Juliet. While Victor trembles over local wines and quakes with the ecstasy of cooking, Sophie answers a letter that’s been lost for 50 years — and can hardly believe it when the author arrives to take her advice.
Vanessa Redgrave plays Claire, who responds to Sophie’s reply with a plan to track down Lorenzo, a local farmer who asked her for her hand way back when. In tow is Claire’s ornery grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan), who provides not only Ken-doll eye candy but also a dry wit that makes Juliet much more fun than the average romantic comedy. Claire’s no slouch either: With more than 117 acting credits under her belt (including a recent stint on the pulpy Nip/Tuck), Redgrave brings her best to a role that could easily have slipped into stereotypical territory for so-called old ladies. Both the writing and the actress’s visible commitment humanize Claire as a woman with feelings that transcend age and whose wisdom informs her young charges. Plus, Redgrave’s presence alone imbues the film with a dignity often missing from the genre.
Still, Seyfried and Egan aren’t simply riding their talented elder’s coattails as Sophie of course joins Claire on her excellent adventure, serving as the heart and soul of Mission Amore, while Charlie is the hunky wet blanket and stand-in for romantic cynics. Juliet cements Seyfried as a capable, inoffensive female lead. Where her past roles have sometimes left a smarmy residue, her portrayal of Sophie is all feel-good and clean. The role is Seyfried’s third major one this year, but it’s also her best. As Sophie, the actress works her mellifluous appeal to the max, becoming both a gorgeous girl-next-door and an earnest ingenue who’s waiting for her big break. Egan, an Australian import, similarly handles his dreamy looks (which were groomed with soapy, homegrown fare like Home and Away), reveling in Charlie’s adorable dorkiness and crossing the line of palatable cheesiness just a couple of times when the plot predictably dictates.
Enhancing everything is the hopelessly beautiful setting, portrayed here with such warmth that regional airline Alitalia could have been a co-sponsor. While the Italian hills nurture budding romance between the young’uns, they’re also the only place that could make a guy like Victor look less than perfect. Bernal is another gem of Juliet — not his sex appeal, but his knack for comedy. Having made his reputation on heavy Spanish-language dramas like Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien, the Mexican native wouldn’t be the first actor that his character might seem to call for. Yet in Bernal’s hands, the self-obsessed Victor is more lovable than malicious.
Letters to Juliet has its corny moments and is shameless in purpose. But none of that really matters when it lets us believe, even for just 100-odd minutes, that magic might actually be possible.