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Sunday, 19 September 2010

Imagine you were transported away from a tiresome job as a fact-checker with The New Yorker (um, chick-flic anyone?) and an unresponsive, ambitious boyfriend who doesn't really care whether he is with you or with a slab of smoked ham. Imagine then that you end up in Verona - home of fabled lovers Romeo and Juliet - where you embark on the trail of the most viscerally-compelling feature story that, you are convinced, will propel your career as a journalist to a dizzying pinnacle of success.

If you can imagine these things, then you are already inside the world created by Letters to Juliet (dir Gary Winick, 2010), where Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) gets the cold shoulder from fiance Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) after they arrive in Verona from New York where, unfortunately, her job as a fact-checker is doing just fine. Victor has plans for Verona but they don't really include Sophie. A chef about to start his own restaurant, he wants to talk with Italian suppliers about cheese and wine. The last thing he wants is to accompany his betrothed on a tour of the city's sights. So Sophie sets out alone. Walking the streets, she comes upon a strange sight. Dozens of women with pens and sheets of paper are writing notes and afixing them to a rustic wall. Intrigued, Sophie waits until they are gone with the daylight.

A woman arrives carrying a basket. She places each note into it and walks away, with Sophie hot on her trail down an alley, through a cafe and up a flight of stairs at its back entrance. Undaunted by the strange surroundings, Sophie follows the woman into a cosy chamber where three women sit around a large table. The notes are handed out so that the women can answer them, as 'Juliet', and have their replies sent to the hundreds of petitioners they respond to on a daily basis.

Naturally, Sophie wants to join them. She takes out her discovery from a hidden recess in the wall: a letter so ancient the paper has turned brown and dried out almost completely. It's from a young English girl who last visited the city, where she fell in love with a boy named Lorenzo, in 1958. With the women's approval, Sophie writes a response. After it is mailed, things return to normal, except that Sophie has been included by the Italian women as one of their number.

Until one day a tense young man named Charlie (Christopher Egan) walks into the chamber asking who wrote the letter he holds in his hand. Sophie owns up immediately and the two face off angrily before Charlie storms out of the room back to meet his grandmother, who has returned to Verona because of Sophie's missive. Sophie naturally follows Charlie, and they come across Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) in a courtyard. She's on a mission: to find Lorenzo and see what has happened to him in the 50 intervening years. Charlie objects strongly when Sophie offers to accompany them, but Claire approves.

They set off the next morning in Charlie's expensive black car with the stereo on loud and high hopes in their hearts. What they find suprises them but doesn't put a stop to the quixotic adventure. There are dozens of Lorenzo Bartonlinis in the city's vicinity. Sophie's experience as a fact-checker proves invaluable.

There is one man who flips them the bird. There is one with dementia. There is a playboy, a hen-pecked husband, a priest, and a letch. After each disappointment they return to their hotel, where they talk and the more they talk the closer they become. Their hearts are becoming intertwined and Claire takes on the role of go-between, finding opportunities to facilitate the feelings that develop between two young people who, at first, had hated the sight of one another. It's a very Shakespearean comedy. There's plenty of brittle word-play between the sexes, and lots of misunderstandings that the viewer watches play out from a position of complete knowledge. Frail humanity stumbles blindly onward, trying to make the best of things.

They eventually find the right Lorenzo riding a horse (of course!) near a vineyard. Of course he remembers Claire. Of course he still loves her. Sad that the romantic holiday Odyssey is over, Sophie returns to the city, and heartless Victor. She then returns to New York where, in the office of the editor-in-chief, she has her story accepted.

Thrilled to her very bones by this personal triumph, Sophie visits Victor in his kitchen. Has he read the story? No, he can read it later. The snub becomes the straw that breaks the back of Sophie's regard for her long-time boyfriend. After the split, which is bloodless and mercifully quick, she quits the scene. In the office next morning she is keen to hunt out new opportunities to shine. She is handed a letter that turns out to be an invitation to the wedding of Claire and Lorenzo. She packs and makes arrangements and soon finds herself back in Italy. It would be too heartbreaking to say that the boy had already chosen another woman, so I won't. Enough to say that there's another misunderstanding, a balcony to be entered, and a crowd of onlookers to attract who will get to watch a passionate kiss seal an everlasting pact.

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