This has been quite a year so far for Amanda Seyfried to come into her own as today's young starlet. February's Dear John offered her a showcase for red-blooded passion, while March's Chloe gave her sultrier cues to work with. Now, with Letters to Juliet, she settles for being your usual romantic lead (well, without the ABBA songs this time), and in a less-than-demanding role, she gives an adequately doe-eyed performance. Fortunately for her, she gets to share screen time with Oscar-winning screen vet Vanessa Redgrave, from whom she could certainly learn how to sell heartache and headstrong ways with some warmth and nuance.
Seyfried plays Sophie, a fact-checker for the New Yorker ("yes, it's kind of like a detective," she explains from the start, but don't worry: both her character and the film will forget these skills and that salary in time for a pricey and inevitable climactic misunderstanding). Since her fiance, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), will be opening his new restaurant shortly after their wedding, they've opted to celebrate their "pre-honeymoon" in Italy beforehand. Of course, Victor gets caught up in wine auctions and all sorts of business-minded distractions, so Sophie is left to see the sights, including the legendary Verona balcony where Romeo is said to have romanced Juliet.
The lovelorn leave their letters there to be answered by the star-crossed lover, by way of some volunteer proxies, so when Sophie unearths a fifty-year-old letter hidden behind a brick, she decides to respond. Much to her surprise, the author, Claire (Redgrave) not only receives the reply, but jets down to Verona with her grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan) while Sophie is still in town. Claire's keen to find out if her former flame is still out there somewhere, would-be writer Sophie would like to tag along (it's not like Victor will mind), and Charlie thinks the whole thing is a fool's errand but drives anyway.
It should come as no surprise that Sophie starts having second thoughts about that whole wedding thing, or that Claire will find her man. That doesn't stop director Gary Winick (Bride Wars) and writers Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan from bashing Sophie and Charlie together like rocks that won't spark and driving Claire towards red herrings both playful and tragic. Seyfried seems every bit the romantic when she's ignoring her fiance (who's handily ignoring her), while Egan looks like Ryan Phillippe once did and sounds like Liz Lemon's future husband on "30 Rock" does (that is to say, Michael Sheen's impossibly stuffy Brit and not Astronaut Mike Dexter). The Tuscan scenery certainly hurt as a distraction from their bloodless banter and brooding revelations, while Bernal is only missing a coking-up scene to explain away his bracing passion for all things European; it seems like he'd just as soon make love to an old Italian woman who makes killer desserts than keep tabs on that nagging young American wife-to-be of us.
Enter Redgrave, whose grace and gravity seems to but everyone else at ease. She alone sells us on the fantasy of finding one's true love, the regret of letting them slip away and the willingness to play Cupid and spare two young romantics a life of lament similar to her own. Whether with a quivering lip or a twinkle in her eye, Redgrave sells us on the whole fairy tale far more than Seyfried, Egan or Winick can, and only her character really seems to deserve what she gets in the end.
If only in her scenes, she makes that played-out notion of true love feel more like a long-lost treasure waiting to be re-discovered and less like an excuse for impulsive international flights and closing crane shots, and her performance makes the predictable antics of Letters to Juliet worth tolerating.