A plague on most of their houses
THE brilliant first chapter of Tim Parks’s book ‘A Season With Verona’ tells the story of a 550-mile trip to Bari. The author boards a coach at midnight for a soccer match kicking off at 3pm the following afternoon. The supporters of the Hellas Verona football club spend the journey drinking, sniffing cocaine, insulting the driver and ‘singing in praise of deviant behaviour’, as Parks memorably puts it.
‘Letters to Juliet’ also includes a journey that begins in Verona and takes three people all around the Tuscany area. The Juliet of the title is Ms Capulet of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fame, but the movie is set in the present day.
It tells the story of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact-checker with The New Yorker, who visits Verona with her fiancé Victor (Gael García Bernal) on a ‘pre-honeymoon’. He is about to open his own Italian restaurant in New York and largely ignores her, spending his time investigating wine and truffles. Left to wander the city alone, she comes across the house once allegedly inhabited by Shakespeare’s Juliet, and reads letters posted by lovelorn women to the fictional teenager.
She finds one 50-year-old piece of correspondence and, after sending a reply, meets the woman who sent it. Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), now a 70-year-old woman, arrives in Italy with her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) intent on meeting the man whom she wrote about half a century before. Sophie offers to lend a hand.
As a premise, it’s not bad. Redgrave, however, acts everybody else off the screen – the film is, frankly, way beneath her talents. Claire’s search for a man named Lorenzo Bartolini mixes poignancy, humour and quite a bit of Italian stereotyping. It’s a common enough name in the Siena region, and so the trio’s effort to see if the real Lorenzo will stand up holds a certain appeal.
The problem is that director Gary Winick has decided that Sophie, not Claire, is the focus of the story. Will she fall for the cynical Charlie and ditch the ditzy Victor? Do we really care? Charlie describes himself as unpleasant, Victor clearly has other things on his mind, and Sophie seems to be on the verge of tears for much of the second half of the picture. What does she see in Charlie? What does either man see in her? I’ve no idea.
It is perhaps no coincidence that ‘Letters to Juliet’ opened in Ireland on the same day as the World Cup. After all, the only flicks many males are going to be watching for the next month will be done by Lionel Messi and other football geniuses. But if it’s a chick flick, it clearly didn’t capture the attention of one woman of my acquaintance. “At one point early on, I wanted to gouge the eyes out of my head,” she revealed.
Is it as bad as that? Not quite. There are some spectacular shots of Italy – if nothing else, ‘Letters to Juliet’ should boost the number of English-speakers planning to live la bella vita. And the so-called sub-plot (Claire’s quest to find Lorenzo) holds the attention, if you’re willing to go with the flow and don’t mind a bit of schmaltz.
But we all know where things are headed – and predictability is the least of our problems here. Egan has no charisma, there’s no chemistry between him and Seyfried, and the dialogue is far from ‘awesome’ (one of Sophie’s favourite words). “Can you move?” she asks one of her love interests. “Only my lips,” he replies. Pass me a bucket.