It’s difficult to imagine William Shakespeare finding success in the modern era. So much of his message adheres to the rom-com formula that appears to be largely unpalatable to most modern audiences. And yet, director Gary Winick’s (who brought us Pieces of April and 13 Going On 30) 2010 film, Letters to Juliet, revives the notion that, through the lens of the bard, love can shine through in a believable, endearing way (use of Taylor Swift songs or not).
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Lise Friedman and Ceil Friedman, José Rivera and Tim Sullivan’s adapted screenplay follows Sophie Hall (Amanda Seyfried) as she goes on a “pre-honeymoon” with her fiancé, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), to Verona, the famed backdrop of the famous balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet. As a fact checker for The New Yorker, Sophie’s professional satisfaction has been minimal of late, especially considering her aspirations to be a writer. Victor, on the other hand, is passionately involved in the upcoming opening of his restaurant, using the trip to Italy as a way to meet with suppliers, rather than actually spend any time with Sophie.
The less Victor pretends to be interested in the romance element of the trip, the more Sophie feels the need to break out on her own. This is how she encounters the “Secretaries of Juliet,” a group of women who answer the letters of the legions who come to visit the balcony and ask the tragic heroine advice on love. Fascinated with the concept, Sophie falls further down the rabbit hole when she finds an abandoned letter in the crevice of the wall that was written in 1957 from Claire Smith-Wyman (Vanessa Redgrave). Compelled to write to her after reading that she left her true love waiting for her as a result of being too scared of the consequences of not returning to England, Sophie manages to conjure Claire and her grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan), to Verona.
Charlie is a quintessentially uptight British man with nothing but scorn for Claire’s decision to dredge up the past and potentially break his grandmother’s heart all over again. Claire, on the other hand, is awash with excitement, certain that going in search of Lorenzo Bartolini (Franco Nero) is the right thing to do. Finding inspiration in the romance of the story, Sophie asks if she can join Claire (and Charlie) on her quest. Claire is delighted for her to come along, though somewhat inquisitive about why Victor is so willing to let her go.
Upon encountering the first “Lorenzo” of their journey, it’s clear that the trio is going to have their work cut out for them when they discover that there are just over seventy Lorenzo Bartolinis in the region. With her fact checking abilities, however, Sophie remains confident they will find him. Along the way, Charlie gradually begins to let down his guard, getting to know Sophie a bit better–though perhaps not as well as Claire, who learns that Sophie’s mother abandoned her when she was just nine years old. Charlie, too, has suffered the scars of loss after his parents died in a car accident when he was ten. Unfortunately, Charlie makes the mistake of accusing Sophie of not knowing anything about “real loss” when they come to a Lorenzo who has died, frightening Charlie into thinking that his worst fears about the excursion have come true, and that his grandmother will be more hurt than before.
But, of course, what would a rom-com with Juliet as its talisman be without a brief curveball like this to veer the happy ending only briefly off track? And an even further curveball thrown when Charlie’s love for Sophie is marred by the sight of her kissing Victor at the end of the jaunt, a sight that, from afar, almost looks genuine. Nonetheless, for all its more than occasional cheese (literal and figurative), there is no denying that Letters to Juliet could melt even the coldest of hearts. Probably because that’s what happens when narratives are set in Italy.