Amanda Seyfried is clearly bidding to become America’s romantic-comedy sweetheart, and I’m afraid that she’ll succeed at it. The 24-year-old with the feline eyes and quick smile definitely has the talents to do it, but there’s never been a shortage of actresses who can twinkle.
Much harder to find are actresses who can do that while also flourishing in darker material such as Jennifer’s Body and Chloe. It’s a measure of Seyfried’s range that her body of work encompasses those films as well as Mamma Mia! and Dear John, yet if I had to choose between Seyfried Light and Seyfried Dark, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. That’s why I’m afraid her career is threatening to become too Light.
Letters to Juliet takes her farther down that less interesting path. She plays Sophie, a fact checker for The New Yorker who dreams of writing for the magazine. While traveling to Verona with her restaurateur fiancé (Gael García Bernal), she runs across an intriguing bit of real-life local lore. The city — the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — receives thousands of letters every year from women asking Juliet for romantic advice, and Sophie finds the small group of women who answer them, writing as Shakespeare’s character. After unearthing a 50-year-old letter from an Englishwoman named Claire expressing regret at not having run off with one Lorenzo Bartolini, Sophie is seized with the urge to answer it herself. Her letter soon brings the wealthy and widowed Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) to Italy along with her disapproving grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan), and they’re all off to find the jilted Lorenzo amid a sea of other Lorenzo Bartolinis.
The unusual concentration of men with that name in one area of Tuscany is the only thing that keeps the main characters together for so long, and it’s a rickety contrivance. The romance between Sophie and Charlie is supposed to drive this thing, but there’s no chemistry between the actors. I blame Egan, the Australian actor last seen working an American accent in the short-lived TV show Kings. He’s a wooden presence here, and there’s much more going on between Seyfried and García Bernal, playing his character as a guy so full of puppy-dog enthusiasm about wine and pasta that he ignores his fiancée. You end up wishing that Egan and García Bernal had switched roles, and that’s never good.
As for Seyfried, she’s entirely upstaged by Redgrave, though there’s certainly no shame in that, especially with Redgrave playing this wispy material like her life depended on it. She makes this old lady a treat to be around, leavening Claire’s innate dignity and romantic longings with self-deprecating humor and a certain caginess — she knows exactly how to manipulate her grandson. This is quite possibly Redgrave’s finest film performance since 1992’s Howards End. How I wish there’d been a better movie built around it.