Letters to Juliet

[Christianity Today Movies; May 14, 2010]

Deck: A young woman vacationing in Italy finds a love-letter written 50 years before, and assists the now-elderly widow who wrote it to find her one-time love.

Stars: 2

Cast: Amanda Seyfried (Sophie), Vanessa Redgrave (Claire), Christopher Egan (Charlie), Gael Garcia Bernal (Victor)

This is the dilemma of movie reviewing: a critic who has honed professional discernment by studying the cinematic arts will not be as generous toward a film as a happy audience that is just looking for a good time. When I picked up my daughter for the screening, I said, “I don’t know why I wanted to review this; it looks awful.

That opinion did not change—but while Meg and I were rolling our eyes and whispering witty critiques, hundreds of people around us, who had filled every seat in the theater, were having a ball. They laughed, they sighed, they cheered, they grew thoughtfully silent approximately 30 seconds after Meg whispered to me, “Now something devastating is going to happen.”

But in this particular case there’s a mystery, too. Why did so many people turn out for this screening? Would every age and race in Baltimore turn out just for elegant, British septuagenarian Vanessa Redgrave? It doesn’t seem like the other two leads, Amanda Seyfried and Christopher Egan, have enough star power to account for this. The film promised no fights, sex, or special effects. So what was the draw?

The story concerns Sophie, a fact-checker at the New Yorker who dreams of being a writer. She is on her way to Italy for a “pre-honeymoon” with her boyfriend, Victor; it’s “pre” because, just days after the wedding, Victor is going to open a restaurant. But we don’t see much of Victor, and that’s a shame because he would have been an interesting main character. It’s not that the character is all that well-written, but that Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Science of Sleep) brings an eye-catching manic, ditzy quality to his portrayal of this passionate foodie. Bernal steals the scene whenever he’s onscreen, which, unfortunately, is not often enough.

As Victor revels in the pasta, vineyards, and truffle farms, Sophie goes off to see the sights of Verona. She finds a courtyard where many women, some in tears, are writing notes and taping them to the stone wall. At the end of the day, a woman with a basket comes and gathers all the notes. Curious, Sophie follows her, and learns that a custom has grown up of writing letters to Juliet, Shakespeare’s most popular character, the doomed fiancée of Romeo. These letters describe love lost, found, or troubled, and ask her guidance, and a group of Veronese women, “Juliet’s Secretaries,” have taken on the task of writing replies.

This part of the movie is factual, as a 2006 book by the title Letters to Juliet documented. According to The Juliet Club website, “Since the 1930s, Juliet has received countless letters from writers all over the world, and amazingly, they’ve all received an answer.” (All? Gee.) Every year the club gives a prize which “recognizes the spontaneity of the writers who turn to Juliet.” (“Spontaneity”?)

Sophie is readily recruited to fill in as an English-speaking secretary. One day, while gathering the missives, Sophie knocks aside a loose stone and discovers behind it a letter written in 1957. The writer, Claire, tells Juliet that she had promised Lorenzo that she would run away with him, but lost her courage. “Please, Juliet, tell me what I should do.”

Sophie writes to Claire, and before you can say “unlikely plot contrivance” Claire’s hunky grandson, Charlie, is storming into the secretaries’ office to chastise Sophie for disrupting his Gran’s life. Yes, Claire is waiting outside with a rented car, ready to try to locate her long-lost Lorenzo. With Victor away at a wine auction, Sophie is free to tootle around the glorious countryside with them, using her fact-checking skills to locate every Lorenzo Bartolini in the region.

A character like Claire, an older woman who is an attractive and even romantic figure, is one that comes along very rarely. The part is inherently a quiet one, as Claire is tender, vulnerable and hopeful, so the challenge was to render it invitingly without overdoing things. Redgrave, nearly 6 feet tall, strides along in pale, fluttering garments, applying every ounce of her impressive talent to giving this lightly-sketched character some depth. She works her face desperately, trying to convey ample emotion without cracking Claire’s delicate veneer. It’s like watching Yo Yo Ma play a kazoo.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Sophie continue to bicker cutely. Amanda Seyfried has to carry the whole movie as Sophie, but, even though the actress is very pretty, the character is weightless, vacant. She might have been a character from a Clueless sequel, one where they take a class trip to Italy. Charlie taunts Sophie for using “Oh my God” and “Awesome” in the same sentence. When she later uses the phrase “Caveat emptor” (“Let the buyer beware”), he’s astonished, and she explains that she graduated from Brown with a double-major, one of the degrees in Latin. This is surprising, to say the least.

Christopher Egan’s Charlie aims to be the kind of stuffy, proper character Cary Grant would play in a screwball comedy, but he is as two-dimensional as Sophie, and the pair have no particular electricity. The plot marches on: Victor sends Sophie rushed text messages that show more interest in food than in her. Charlie gets tipsy and gazes amorously at Sophie. The trio finds a dozen Lorenzo Bartolinis, but over and over it’s not the right one. Is there going to be a happy ending? Go ahead, take a guess.

So why would so many people turn out for this film, and enjoy it so completely? I think it has something to do with love. The movie’s premise is that true love can be, not merely found, but assisted and arranged by an outside force. Perhaps that force is destiny; at Claire and Lorenzo’s wedding, Lorenzo proclaims that “Destiny wanted us together. Grazie a destino!” My hunch is that an Italian farmer, even in 2010, would be giving thanks to God instead, especially right after his lovely church wedding. But destiny is impersonal and makes no demands, and has more audience appeal.

But you don’t have to leave it up to destiny if you have a friend in magical places. Sophie describes the courtyard as “a place where the heartbroken leave notes, asking Juliet for her help.” It’s as if Juliet were a substitute for untold generations of beloved Italian saints. The sight of people writing notes and sticking them on a stone wall will be familiar to anyone who’s been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and seen visitors stuffing prayer-notes into every crack.

Juliet not only receives notes, she is somehow supposed to be able to respond, intervening in relationships and straightening things out. The Juliet Club website is topped with a sketch of Juliet reaching out toward the viewer as if in a trance, eyes shut and mouth gently open, and hair tousled by a breeze. It’s kind of creepy. But, really, do you want Juliet’s relationship advice?  How well did things work out for her, anyway? The advice she herself took—“Take this potion so you’ll look like you’re dead”—wasn’t so great.

So there’s a dilemma. I can criticize this movie on grounds artistic, theological, and just plain logical, but I was far in the minority. The popular verdict appears to be positive. Does that mean this is a movie you’ll like? Maybe so; but, as Sophie would say, caveat emptor.

Talk About It [3-5 Questions]

1. Is there something in human nature that craves supernatural contact with a force that can give advice or arrange events? What reason would a Christian give to explain why many people have such a craving? What reason would an agnostic materialist give?

2. Do you believe that each person is meant to find one particular true love? Does God assign mates, or might a successful marriage be built up from range of different potential partners? Does God intend for some people to never marry? Is there a role for “Destiny” in these things?

3. What is it about the character of Juliet Capulet that elicits such devotion? How is it that her story, which went tragically wrong, came to be synonymous with joyous, successful love? Would she be as effective a figure if she and Romeo had married, had children, and lived long and happy lives? How does tragedy make her story more appealing?

The Family Corner: The film accepts as commonplace that a couple will sleep together before marriage. Otherwise, it is pretty tame: a few kisses but no sex or nudity, and one mild expletive.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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