Deck: A young woman vacationing in Italy finds a love-letter written 50
years before, and assists the now-elderly widow who wrote it to find her
Theater Release: May 14, 2010, Summit Entertainment
Directed by: Gary Winick
Runtime: 1 hour 44 min
Cast: Amanda Seyfried (Sophie), Vanessa Redgrave (Claire), Christopher Egan
(Charlie), Gael Garcia Bernal (Victor)
This is the dilemma of movie reviewing: a critic who has honed professional
discernment by studying the cinematic arts will not be as generous toward a
film as a happy audience that is just looking for a good time. When I picked
up my daughter for the screening, I said, “I don’t know why I wanted to
review this; it looks *awful.*”
That opinion did not change--but while Meg and I were rolling our eyes and
whispering witty critiques, hundreds of people around us, who had filled
every seat in the theater, were having a ball. They laughed, they sighed,
they cheered, they grew thoughtfully silent approximately 30 seconds after
Meg whispered to me, “Now something devastating is going to happen.”
But in this particular case there’s a mystery, too. Why did so many people
turn out for this screening? Would every age and race in Baltimore turn out
just for elegant, British septuagenarian Vanessa Redgrave? It doesn’t seem
like the other two leads, Amanda Seyfried and Christopher Egan, have enough
star power to account for this. The film promised no fights, sex, or special
effects. So what was the draw?
The story concerns Sophie, a fact-checker at the *New Yorker* who dreams of
being a writer. She is on her way to Italy for a “pre-honeymoon” with her
boyfriend, Victor; it’s “pre” because, just days after the wedding, Victor
is going to open a restaurant. But we don’t see much of Victor, and that’s a
shame because he would have been an interesting main character. It’s not
that the character is all that well-written, but that Gael Garcia Bernal (*Y
Tu Mama Tambien, The Science of Sleep)* brings an eye-catching manic, ditzy
quality to his portrayal of this passionate foodie. Bernal steals the scene
whenever he’s onscreen, which, unfortunately, is not often enough.
As Victor revels in the pasta, vineyards, and truffle farms, Sophie goes off
to see the sights of Verona. She finds a courtyard where many women, some in
tears, are writing notes and taping them to the stone wall. At the end of
the day, a woman with a basket comes and gathers all the notes. Curious,
Sophie follows her, and learns that a custom has grown up of writing letters
to Juliet, Shakespeare’s most popular character, the doomed fiancée of
Romeo. These letters describe love lost, found, or troubled, and ask her
guidance, and a group of Veronese women, “Juliet’s Secretaries,” have taken
on the task of writing replies.
Sophie is readily recruited to fill in as an English-speaking secretary. One
day, while gathering the missives, Sophie knocks aside a loose stone and
discovers behind it a letter written in 1957. The writer, Claire, tells
Juliet that she had promised Lorenzo that she would run away with him, but
lost her courage. “Please, Juliet, tell me what I should do.”
Sophie writes to Claire, and before you can say “unlikely plot contrivance”
Claire’s hunky grandson, Charlie, is storming into the secretaries’ office
to chastise Sophie for disrupting his Gran’s life. Yes, Claire is waiting
outside with a rented car, ready to try to locate her long-lost Lorenzo.
With Victor away at a wine auction, Sophie is free to tootle around the
glorious countryside with them, using her fact-checking skills to locate
every Lorenzo Bartolini in the region.
A character like Claire, an older woman who is an attractive and even
romantic figure, is one that comes along very rarely. The part is inherently
a quiet one, as Claire is tender, vulnerable and hopeful, so the challenge
was to render it invitingly without overdoing things. Redgrave, nearly 6
feet tall, strides along in pale, fluttering garments, applying every ounce
of her impressive talent to giving this lightly-sketched character some
depth. She works her face desperately, trying to convey ample emotion
without cracking Claire’s delicate veneer. It’s like watching Yo Yo Ma play
Meanwhile, Charlie and Sophie continue to bicker cutely. Amanda Seyfried has
to carry the whole movie as Sophie, but, even though the actress is very
pretty, the character is weightless, vacant. She might have been a character
from a *Clueless* sequel, one where they take a class trip to Italy. Charlie
taunts Sophie for using “Oh my God” and “Awesome” in the same sentence. When
she later uses the phrase “*Caveat emptor*” (“Let the buyer beware”), he’s
astonished, and she explains that she graduated from Brown with a
double-major, one of the degrees in Latin. This is surprising, to say the
Christopher Egan’s Charlie aims to be the kind of stuffy, proper character
Cary Grant would play in a screwball comedy, but he is as two-dimensional as
Sophie, and the pair have no particular electricity. The plot marches on:
Victor sends Sophie rushed text messages that show more interest in food
than in her. Charlie gets tipsy and gazes amorously at Sophie. The trio
finds a dozen Lorenzo Bartolinis, but over and over it’s not the right one.
Is there going to be a happy ending? Go ahead, take a guess.
So why would so many people turn out for this film, and enjoy it so
completely? I think it has something to do with love. The movie’s premise is
that true love can be, not merely found, but assisted and arranged by an
outside force. Perhaps that force is destiny; at Claire and Lorenzo’s
wedding, Lorenzo proclaims that “Destiny wanted us together. Grazie a
destino!” My hunch is that an Italian farmer, even in 2010, would be giving
thanks to God instead, especially right after his lovely church wedding. But
destiny is impersonal and makes no demands, and has more audience appeal.
But you don’t have to leave it up to destiny if you have a friend in magical
places. Sophie describes the courtyard as “a place where the heartbroken
leave notes, asking Juliet for her help.” It’s as if Juliet were a
substitute for untold generations of beloved Italian saints. The sight of
people writing notes and sticking them on a stone wall will be familiar to
anyone who’s been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and seen visitors
stuffing prayer-notes into every crack.
Juliet not only receives notes, she is somehow supposed to be able to
respond, intervening in relationships and straightening things out. The
Juliet Club website is topped with a sketch of Juliet reaching out toward
the viewer as if in a trance, eyes shut and mouth gently open, and hair
tousled by a breeze. It’s kind of creepy. But, really, do you want Juliet’s
relationship advice? How well did things work out for her, anyway? The
advice she herself took—“Take this potion so you’ll look like you’re
dead”—wasn’t so great.
So there’s a dilemma. I can criticize this movie on grounds artistic,
theological, and just plain logical, but I was far in the minority. The
popular verdict appears to be positive. Does that mean this is a movie
you’ll like? Maybe so; but, as Sophie would say, *caveat emptor*.
Talk About It
1. Is there something in human nature that craves supernatural contact with
a force that can give advice or arrange events? What reason would a
Christian give to explain why many people have such a craving? What reason
would an agnostic materialist give?
2. Do you believe that each person is meant to find one particular true
love? Does God assign mates, or might a successful marriage be built up from
range of different potential partners? Does God intend for some people to
never marry? Is there a role for “Destiny” in these things?
3. What is it about the character of Juliet Capulet that elicits such
devotion? How is it that her story, which went tragically wrong, came to be
synonymous with joyous, successful love? Would she be as effective a figure
if she and Romeo had married, had children, and lived long and happy lives?
How does tragedy make her story more appealing?
The Family Corner: The film accepts as commonplace that a couple will sleep
together before marriage. Otherwise, it is pretty tame: a few kisses but no
sex or nudity, and one mild expletive.