Letters to Juliet (review)

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Love’s Labour’s Lost

Is the world so full of women ready to settle, romantically, for Mr. Just Barely Okay that even our romantic fantasies are full of such situations? For this is a staple of the Hollywood romance, of both the comedic and the dramatic stripes: the woman who is about to commit to a man whom she discovers is wrong for her because, just in the nick of time, she meets The Guy, The One, Mr. Right, Mr. Perfect. Oh, the mistake she almost made! Thank God she was saved from a life of misery!

Or is it merely that Hollywood believes women are this fickle, this flighty, and so keeps offering us this scenario, hoping that we’ll see ourselves in it?
I’m not really sure which would be worse. And I’m not sure I’ve complained about this particular annoying trope before, because usually these movies don’t offer any apparent alternatives for being the silly and not-very-romantic idiocy that they are. But Letters to Juliet is different. It’s already half a lovely, bittersweet movie about longing and romance and making mistakes and living with regret. It’s hard to see how the screenwriters — Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan (Flushed Away) — didn’t see how the lovely half of their story could have transformed the obvious, unconvincing, unlovely other half into something truly marvelous, for a film that was 100 percent perfect.

But they didn’t.

There’s Englishwoman Claire (Vanessa Redgrave: Atonement, Evening), see, who arrives in Verona, Italy, in search of the Italian man she was in love with but ran away from half a century earlier. Claire was beckoned by Sophie (Amanda Seyfried: Dear John, Chloe), an American on vacation in Verona — a pre-honeymoon, in fact, with her fiancé, Victor (Gael García Bernal: Blindness, The Science of Sleep) — who has taken up with the women who, as employees of the city, reply to all the lovelorn missives heartbroken women leave for the fictional Juliet Capulet (of Romeo and Juliet fame) at Juliet’s House. The movie avoids the tackiness of this modern tourist trap (though I’m not sure if that is to its credit or not) to indulge in the sappy romance of it… though one must wonder if anyone who is applying to Juliet for relationship advice actually knows how her romance with Romeo ended. Anyway, these Veronan women, with temporary help from Sophie, offer their immediate advice by mail to the letters left every day for Juliet. Except that Sophie discovered Claire’s letter, lamenting her abandonment of poor, handsome Lorenzo, which had been stuffed in a crevice and overlooked for 50 years, and is compelled to respond, telling Claire that it’s never too late to chase after happiness.

So: Sophie is bored, because Victor is busy meeting suppliers for the Tuscan restaurant he’s about to open in New York, and she tags along on Claire’s road trip of the surrounding countryside to find her Lorenzo. Accompanying Claire is her grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan: Eragon), a truly unlikeable young man, and yet if you’re of the suspicion that Sophie will eventually fall for Charlie, even though he’s an odious, arrogant stick in the mud, you are not wrong.

And that’s where Letters to Juliet fails. Claire’s story is deeply touching and beautifully performed by Redgrave and Seyfried, whose Sophie works as a sort of researcher for Claire’s quest, ferreting out all the many possible Lorenzos for them to track down (there are lots of them), while Sophie contemplates her relationship with Victor. It’s all gorgeously shot in the actual locations, and will make you want to jump on a plane and stroll around Italy eating amazing food and drinking amazing wine and hopefully falling in love yourself (which you will embrace heartily and not run away from, now that you’ve seen how Claire regrets that she did). And in the smart, not-obvious version of Letters to Juliet, Sophie would not run away from Victor but would take a fresh look at why she fell in love with him in the first place, even though it appears they may be in a bit of a rut at the moment, with his work keeping him preoccupied. There must have been a reason, mustn’t there, that she agreed to marry him? Or did she fall as quickly and inadvisably for Victor as she does for Charlie?

I wish the screenwriters or director Gary Winick (Bride Wars, Charlotte’s Web) were able to convey a sense of Sophie making a bad decision, and that 50 years later, she’d be on her own search for Victor, to apologize for abandoning him with seemingly little reason. But there’s no sense of that at all. Instead, we’re meant to see it as romantic that Sophie makes a hasty decision based on the most capricious of reasons, totally in contrast to the lesson of the other side of the tale.

This should be a better movie than it is. It’s an inexplicable shame that it isn’t.

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Mon, May 17, 2010 6:56pm

iloveed your story i love you. sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much/ hannah

Mon, May 17, 2010 8:21pm


Tue, May 18, 2010 5:51am

wait… she leaves Gael García Bernal? what’s wrong with her?

Oddly enough, it’s not just women who have this fantasy about the “one”. David Tennant’s next movie is about this too, only from a guy’s point of view!

Tue, May 18, 2010 7:04am

I see it as unconsciously-created propaganda. Women (and to a lesser extent men) are being told not to get involved with real people but to wait for that One Perfect Person, with whom they will never have to put any actual effort into keeping the relationship going.

Since such people do not exist, anyone who falls for this is going to be unhappy about its not having happened, whether they “settled” for a real human being or they’re waiting for The One – I assume I need not point out that the idea of being happily single never comes up, because obviously the thing that everybody really wants to be in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, with children.

People who are unhappy about their social/romantic lives are more likely to go and see escapist films about perfect romances…

Tue, May 18, 2010 5:52pm

I think it’s a part of the capitalist conspiracy to keep us all single, thus needing twice the houses and furniture, and unhappy, thus working and shopping to make up for the emotional lack.

Wed, May 19, 2010 12:19pm

Escapism is the key…
It is a daydream, a fantasy. If you want to see “real life” go to the mall or a football game and watch it play out over and over and over with some romantic results and some very unromantic. I don’t go to the movies to see real life. I go to escape. I am not escaping a bad life or an unromantic one…just taking a moment off to look at something lovely and simple and charming. Don’t drag me through the manure of someone else’s reality. Let me look through my rose colored glasses if I want to. My husband and I saw this movie for our 24th anniversary. It was exactly perfect.

Fri, May 21, 2010 11:42pm

“David Tennant’s next movie is about this too, only from a guy’s point of view!”

Yum. Talk about “The Guy, The One, Mr. Right, Mr. Perfect.” ;) And is this movie the rare, rare, rare romantic comedy that might be worth me (gasp!) seeing in a a theater?!? Holy mother. 2012 is here…

Sat, May 22, 2010 6:16am

Another movie/book/something mythologizing Italy as some magical place of romance. I’m sick of this. Do any of these writers (or watchers and readers) know anything about what Italy actually is like to live in? Like, maybe from the perspective of people who really have to live there? Who aren’t rich foreigners who get to escape their rat race and wallow in romantic daydreams about agricultural neverlands in a place with a hazy sense of schedules?

I mean, Italy has never really had a decently strong economy. Now there is incredible unemployment and they still have a completely entrenched class system that has more than a whiff of feudalism about it. Whole areas are depopulating due to corruption and anyone with a bit of a sense of adventure and courage seems to be trying to find another place to live and work.


Sun, Jun 06, 2010 2:15am

You are right on the money with this review. I found myself absolutely loving everything about the story of Claire and Sophie looking for Lorenzo, and hating everything having to do with Sophie and Charlie. For a second I had hope; after the kiss on the grass, it looked like the movie might actually send Sophie back to Victor instead of going with the more stereotypical choice. This has long been a pet peeve of mine in romantic comedies; the boyfriend or girlfriend left behind, not because there is anything wrong with them, but because they had the simple misfortune to be born a plot device instead of a person. Sadly, Victor is my favorite character in the whole movie, and I would gladly watch a film that was just about him opening his restaurant.

Tue, Jun 29, 2010 11:20am

Victor is my favorite character in this movie.


Sun, Jul 04, 2010 10:51pm

So, no one else here was channeling a Silently Screaming Sophie Conscious? “He doesn’t love you, Sophie! Victor DOES NOT love you!” In what way were you all convinced that Victor was “the” man for Sophie? All, I mean ALL he cared about was getting his restaurant started…typical self-absorbed career nutjob. I never felt one bit of actual love from him for Sophie. He never cared about Sophie’s discoveries and abilities…it was all about HIM and HIS STUFF. Sorry, I just don’t see the necessity of her giving up her very essence just so she can marry Victor because she said “yes” for whatever reason. Uggh.

You guys probably felt a lot of anxiety when Rachel went to Ross and Emily’s wedding. Oooh, p-o-o-r Emily! Yeah. And you’re probably still crying your eyes out about the unlucky fiances in “Serendipity,” too.

Mon, Jul 12, 2010 10:06am

Are pre-honeymoons a real thing?

Kill me now.