Tale of love, old and new, set in Verona

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Luisa Ranieri, Milena Vukotic, Lidia Biondi and Marina Massironi star in "Letters to Juliet." (John Johnson/Summit Entertainment)

Letters to Juliet, a quasi-romantic comedy about old love and new love, is notable for the earthy beauty of Amanda Seyfried, the ethereal loveliness of Vanessa Redgrave, and the postcard charm of Verona, Italy.

It's also a case of art imitates life imitates art. If that makes it a tribute to a tribute to a classic, then it is no less enjoyable for that.

First, the backstory: Since the release of the 1936 film of Romeo and Juliet, missives from real-life lovelorn have flooded the Verona mailbox of Shakespeare's fictional Juliet.

Visitors likewise tuck notes in between the stones of the Gothic wall at Juliet's supposed home. Thanks to local volunteers, each "Dear Juliet" epistle posted at Love's Wailing Wall is answered, offering helpful advice.

Enter Sophie (Seyfried), an aspiring New York writer on holiday in Verona with her fiance, Victor (Gael García Bernal).

First, she stumbles upon the volunteer Juliets and then upon a note left by an English girl at Juliet's house half a century earlier. Since the letter is in English, the volunteers recruit Sophie to answer it. And given the English aristocracy's custom of never leaving their ancestral homes, the return address is still good.

Did I mention that Sophie's fiance is a chef, more interested in noodling with his Italian wine and cheese vendors than in canoodling with Sophie? And that Claire (Redgrave), author of the missive answered by Sophie, comes to Verona, her thirtyish grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan) in tow? Claire, now a widow, is moved by Sophie's letter to find her first love, one Lorenzo Bertolini.

Anyone over age 10 knows exactly where this movie is going. And director Gary Winick (maker of the charming 13 Going on 30 and the charmless Bride Wars) makes sure that on its way there, it kisses every sunflower and samples from every vineyard in Italy's Veneto region.

With movie choices like Mean Girls, Mamma Mia! and Dear John, Seyfried is positioned to become the next Julia Roberts. The younger actress is wide-eyed, spirited, and wistful, and like the older one has terrific rapport with mature actors, a useful credential. Seyfried (as the motherless Sophie) and Redgrave (as the daughterless Claire) share a sympathy that warms the film like the summer sun.

And Redgrave! Slim and silvery as lightning, she is always a revelation. She accelerates the movie by slowing down to silent stillness in order fully to hear - and carefully digest - what others do and say. When she looks in the eyes of a costar, she plumbs his soul.

That one of the Lorenzos here happens to be Franco Nero, her real-life husband (and Lancelot to her Guinevere in the 1967 film version of Camelot), adds a layer of art-imitating-life frosting to the cake.


Letters to Juliet *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Gary Winick, with Vanessa Redgrave, Amanda Seyfried, and Gael García Bernal. Distributed by Summit Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (rude behavior, nothing unsuitable for romantics).

Showing at: area theaters.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.


Letters to Juliet

Directed by Gary Winick. With Lidia Biondi, Marina Massironi, Daniel Baldock, Luisa Ranieri, Christopher Egan, Milena Vukotic, Franco Nero, Amanda Seyfried, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael García Bernal. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.

Parent's guide: PG (for brief rude behavior, some language and incidental smoking).