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‘Letters to Juliet (Japan title: Juliet Kara no Tegami)’

Italian jaunt puts its stamp on romance in this sweet-natured chick flick

by Kaori Shoji

“Letters to Juliet” is a rare chick flick that makes you feel glad to be a chick (play along with me please), glad the weather’s getting warm and definitely glad this year’s skirt lengths are short and skimpy.

Irrepressibly joyous and dusted with a light, elegant bonhomie, “Letters to Juliet” is the cinematic equivalent of a fuchsia-colored satin cushion nestled on a nicely upholstered Italian sofa. The centerpiece of this romantic gem is the pillow-topped Amanda Seyfried and her quest for true love unfolds in Verona, Italy.

“Letters to Juliet” is directed by Gary Winick and costars the always wonderful Gael Garcia Bernal, but frankly, you’ll hardly notice the men — in front of the lens or behind it. In fact, their presence is strangely obscured, fading discreetly into the backdrop, in a story that is supposedly about commitment and finding a soulmate.

You get the feeling that this is all intentional on the part of Winick. He peered through the camera, took one look at Seyfried in a minidress, emitting a rapturous sigh in the middle of a Verona square, and said something along the lines of: “OK, who needs soulmates? She’s fine on her own!” This is Seyfried’s vehicle, and she drives it with the gilded assurance of a Hollywood icon in the glory days, such as Rita Hayworth.

In the passenger seat is a woman no less lovely, though in a different way: Vanessa Redgrave gives one of her finest performances to date as an Englishwoman named Claire, who had been in Verona some 50 years previously. Claire had been a teenager back then and, like Shakespeare’s heroine of the film’s title, had met the love of her life in the ancient city. Young and unsure of whether to follow her instincts, she ditched the lad and returned to London. Before leaving, she wrote a letter “to Juliet” asking what she should do, and stuck it into the stone wall of a local landmark known as Juliet’s House.

Back in the 21st century, New York career girl Sophie (Seyfried) is in Verona on a “prehoneymoon trip” with fiance Victor (Garcia Bernal). Discovering the existence of the house and wall where women the world over come to stick their own notes and letters, plus a team of volunteer ladies who pick up the letters and write back (they call themselves “Juliet’s secretaries”), Sophie is thrilled. She stumbles on a rare find, Claire’s epistle from a half century prior, and immediately concocts a detailed, feverish reply full of encouragement and sends it right off to England.

In case you’re wondering where the boys are, they’re pretty much out of the magic circle until the two goddesses tell them it’s OK to enter. Remember Sophie’s husband-to-be Victor? He turns out to be this work-obsessed New York chef, on the brink of opening his own restaurant. He’s preoccupied with vino and pasta, but in a totally businesslike way.

On vacation with a girlfriend as gorgeous as Seyfried, in one of the most beautiful locales the planet has to offer, and Victor is glued to his cell phone negotiating veal prices. This is perhaps the first time you’ll see Garcia Bernal in a romantic film where he does practically no romancing and is pretty much a stick stuck solidly in a deep vat of mud.

No wonder Sophie chooses to spend most of her time far away from her fiance to hang out with other people, first with Juliet’s secretaries and then with Claire, who promptly flies in on Sophie’s advice. Together, they set out to search for Lorenzo (Franco Nero), Claire’s first love of so many years ago. What this means is that Sophie gets to go gallivanting around the Italian countryside, while Victor dines alone and attends wine auctions.

Big mistake on Victor’s part. Claire has come to Verona with tow-haired grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan), who’s a sort of cross between Prince William and Hugh Grant. Soon he and Sophie are bickering and getting on each other’s nerves, which in love-story speak means the pair will fall madly in love five scenes or so later.

There’s nothing, but absolutely nothing, about “Letters to Juliet” that isn’t in accordance with the law of the romance blockbuster. Yet the film has a distinct serenity that suggests an almost art-house quality, thanks mainly to the presence of Redgrave. Sophie may be the dream girlfriend, but Claire is a dream grandmother, and she pulls off this much more difficult stunt with seasoned humor and a hint of calculated naughtiness. She teaches an interesting lesson: In order to be lovely and romantic in old age, you have to be lovely and romantic in youth and keep at it for decades. Sure, it’s hard, but someone’s gotta do it.