Sophie's Choice

A vacation turns into a quest for lost love in Letters to Juliet

Letters to Juliet ** 1/2

Opens Friday areawide

Thank heaven for Vanessa Redgrave. Without her ethereal yet palpably human presence, Letters to Juliet would probably evaporate into the ether. Arguably the world's greatest living actress, Redgrave brings such dignity, warmth, grace, and elegance to Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan's connect-the-dots screenplay, it's easy to pretend that director Gary Winick's (13 Going on 30, Charlotte's Web) hokey romantic comedy is more special than it really is.

Although Redgrave plays second fiddle to Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!, Dear John), it's her character arc that's truly important. Everyone else onscreen, even the fetching Seyfried, just takes up space. Seyfried plays Sophie, a spunky New York career gal vacationing in Italy with her chef fiancé Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal). Since workaholic Victor is on a single-minded quest for the "perfect noodle" (he's planning to open a snazzy new Manhattan eatery), Sophie spends most of her time alone. While visiting the Verona home of Shakespeare's most famous romantic heroine (the titular Juliet), Sophie discovers a love letter written in 1957. Impulsively — and a tad unrealistically — she makes it her mission to reunite the author with the object of her affection.

When the now elderly Claire (Redgrave) shows up, escorted by her tsk-tsking grandson Charlie (Prince William look-alike Christopher Egan), the two women embark upon a seemingly quixotic hunt to find long-lost swain Lorenzo Bartolini. But since there are 74 Bartolinis in Tuscany alone, it ain't gonna be easy. Along the way, of course, Sophie and Charlie flirt and fight in proper rom-com style before realizing that, voila!, they're soul mates.

The best moments in the film — the only ones that really matter — all involve Claire. Redgrave beautifully captures Claire's fond regard and growing affection for Sophie, and their scenes together are genuinely, unexpectedly moving. The sweetest touch is the casting of Franco Nero, Redgrave's real-life on-and-off love of more than 40 years, as Bartolini. When they finally meet, it's as if time stood still and they were back playing Lancelot and Guinevere in Joshua Logan's Camelot. As pretty to look at as it is predictable, Juliet ends on an audience-pleasing note guaranteed to send incurable romantics sniffling and smiling their way out of the theater. Truth be told, Redgrave does a lot more for the movie than it does for her.

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