I saw an absolutely delightful movie over the weekend. "Letters to Juliet" stars that grande dame of acting, Vanessa Redgrave, and a shining new actress, Amanda Seyfried (who was also in last year's wonderful "Mamma Mia".)
The gist of the story is this: New Yorkers Sophie (Seyfried) and her fiance Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) are taking a "pre-honeymoon" in Verona because they won't be able to go after Victor opens his new Italian restaurant in six weeks. Once there, Sophie wants to sightsee in "fair Verona", as Shakespeare called it when he set his famous play "Romeo and Juliet" there. But all Victor is interested in doing is attending wine auctions and tasting Italian breads, cheeses and pastas. Consequently, Sophie ends up spending most of the time alone. (Although Victor could have been an unlikeable, self-centered character, Bernal plays him with a kind of goofy, loopy impetuosity that makes him sort of endearing, if not great fiance material.)
Sophie, a fact checker for the New Yorker magazine, secretly wants to be a writer. She finds a story to tell when she accidentally stumbles on the little courtyard at the home of Juliet Capulet, where women from all over the world have been leaving letters addressed to Juliet on a stone wall. Sophie locates the nearby offices of the Secretaries of Juliet, four women who are engaged in the task of answering all these letters. After getting to know the women, Sophie goes back to the wall and finds a letter that had been hidden away in a loose stone for 50 years. With the blessing of the secretaries, Sophie replies to Claire (Redgrave), the writer of the letter.
Amazingly, within a few days the Secretaries of Juliet and Sophie get a letter from Claire. "We English always remain in our family homes" says Claire's grandson later to explain why Claire still had the same address after all this time. Claire had originally written to Juliet to ask if she should stay in Italy with her young lover, Lorenzo. But she did not stay, returning to England. Now, 50 years later, she has decided to come back to Italy to find him.
Claire is accompanied on her trip by her rude, snotty grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan, who looks a lot like Heath Ledger). Sophie proposes that since Victor is so busy she is footloose and can travel along with Claire and Charlie in their quest. Charlie vigorously protests, but Claire is delighted to have Sophie accompany them. You can probably guess what happens next, but if you can't, this is a spoiler alert: Don't read the next few paragraphs! Start reading again under the next photo.
Sophie and Charlie somehow manage to fall in love along the way. (Charlie explains away his initial oafish behavior by saying he was just worried about his fragile Grandma. ) The three have a lot of trouble finding Lorenzo because there are so many men in that area with the same name. It was great fun to see all the different Lorenzos who might have been the one, ranging from very charming elderly gentlemen to senile nursing home cases to repulsive dirty old men.
Finally, they locate the real Lorenzo, a widower who is still very handsome. Lorenzo (played by Redgrave's real-life husband Franco Nero) has a magnificent villa surrounded by the vineyards which his big extended family operates. Lorenzo recognizes Claire immediately and she too, knows that this is HER Lorenzo. Everything is happy ever after for Claire and Lorenzo.
Yes, I know this is a cream puff of a movie, just a casual bit of fluff. But I enjoyed it on so many levels. Redgrave, who just gets better and better, is exquisite as an elderly woman who has aged well. Claire is elegant, gracious, wise and kind, but a bit dazed and shocked at the temerity of what she has set out to do. I think the wardrobe people did a wonderful job of giving Claire clothing suited to her age - comfortable dresses and flat shoes that were not dowdy but appropriately stylish. As Sophie, Seyfried is just luminous.
It was great seeing Redgrave and Nero together again. They were the red-hot lovers Guinevere and Lancelot in the 1960s movie "Camelot", which was a huge favorite of mine back then.
Most of all, I thoroughly enjoyed the sights of the cities of Verona and Siena and the journeys through the Tuscan countryside bathed in golden light. I loved the al fresco dining scene under the trees and the wedding at the villa. There is the requisite balcony scene too, but it is humorous, not serious. All in all, it was light-hearted escapism at its best.
The movie was inspired by the actual Secretaries of Juliet in Verona, an organization I had never heard of before. Printed below is an Associated Press story written by Colleen Barry:
"VERONA, Italy - Hers was a literary, not literal, existence only. And her own love story was, let's just say, star-cross'd.
"Nonetheless, thousands of lovelorn every year pour out their hearts and seek solace from Juliet, Shakespeare's heroine.
"Their entreaties arrive by the dozens — handwritten missives, sometimes with drawings, or photographs, penned on handmade paper or sheets meant to look like ancient parchment. Some are addressed simply: Juliet, Verona, Italy.
"Yet thanks to compassionate letter carriers, they find their way to an upstairs office overlooking the courtyard of the fabled home of Juliet Capulet, just opposite the balcony of Shakespearean fame.
"And there, improbably, they are answered by 15 self-appointed secretaries to Juliet.
"Let's say by now we are pretty expert. After 15, 20 years we are able to manage this phenomenon," said Giovanna Tamassia, who has been writing replies for 16 years. "But it is also true that sometimes a particularly difficult letter arrives and then we speak among ourselves."
The Secretaries of Juliet, or The Juliet Club, as it also known, is a voluntary association. It has been active for many years, offering advice and support or just lending an ear to all those who feel compelled to write. (Letters have been arriving in Verona at least since the 1930s.)
In addition to answering every single letter addressed to Juliet, the members also promote the legend of Romeo and Juliet and the image of Verona, and they organize some cultural events.
Soon, the Secretaries of Juliet will be looking for more help: Barry writes that they are expecting a deluge of letters now that the movie has been released.
There is also a book on this subject, written by sisters Lise Friedman and Ceil Friedman. The following is a paragraph from a website promoting the book:
"Complete with selected letters, LETTERS TO JULIET explores the legend of Romeo and Juliet, the history of the monuments in Verona, and the story of the various secretaries who have been answering Juliet´s mail for decades. A 21st-century view of the city from an insider´s perspective completes this charming and magical book, which includes stationery that readers may use to send their own letters to Juliet. In its entirety, LETTERS TO JULIET offers an enchanting look at one of literature´s most romantic figures, and the phenomenon of her legend."
Another review describes the types of letters that are received: "The letters arrive by the thousands, in almost every language, and from writers of all ages. Most talk of love - love found and love lost, love sought and love remembered. They may have been written by teenagers in the throes of a first crush or by adults celebrating a hard-won love. The emotions and desires they express are timeless, and some reflect how a particular issue or social movement shaped the writer´s feelings and perspective."
I was saddened to learn of the death earlier this month of another great actor from the Redgrave family, Vanessa's younger sister Lynn Redgrave, praised for many roles, including those in "Georgy Girl" and "Gods and Monsters". And of course, Redgrave also lost her brother Corin last month and her daughter Natasha Richardson last year.