Each year thousands of lovelorn women flock to Verona Italy the hometown of Shakespeare’s Juliet to solicit romantic advice from the tragic heroine. They deposit their pleading letters on a wall near the balcony where Romeo supposedly made his famous late-night visit and if they’re lucky receive a reply from one of Juliet’s crew of officially appointed ghostwriters known as the Secretaries of Juliet.
In Gary Winnick's Letters to Juliet young Sophie (the irresistible Amanda Seyfried) while working on a sort of temp assignment with the Secretaries winds up leading an elderly British widow (Vanessa Redgrave) on a quest to reunite her with the Italian boyfriend she abruptly — and regretfully — jilted nearly 50 years prior. It’s a contrived and far-fetched scenario to be sure but no more so than your average Hollywood rom-com and this one at least carries the pleasant side benefit of allowing the filmmakers to set most of the action in picturesque Verona where Seyfried and Redgrave traverse the countryside on their quixotic endeavor.
The charming mother-daughter dynamic that forms between Seyfried’s doe-eyed do-gooder and Redgrave’s wistful grandma carries Letters to Juliet and make its preposterous and unapologetically schmaltzy plot palpable. But their efforts are largely sabotaged by the mediocre men of Juliet Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel The Motorcycle Diaries) and Christopher Egan (Eragon TV's Kings).
The usually terrific Garcia Bernal is really more of a prop than a character in this film. As Seyfried’s future ex-fiance an ADD-addled restaurateur too preoccupied with procuring ingredients for his new menu to tend to his relationship he replays the same scene over and over as if in some sort of Twilight Zone sketch. His intended replacement played by Egan is an insufferable twit we’re meant to believe is some sort of hot-shot human rights lawyer back in his native England — a detail I wouldn’t believe if he held up his law school degree to the camera for us to see.
Equally incredulous is the romantic subplot that develops between him and Seyfried and when the story shifts to them the film rapidly loses steam. Male characters will always play second fiddle in a chick flick — even one written and directed by men — but in Letters to Juliet they’re almost an afterthought seemingly tossed in late in the game to bolster the film’s appeal to young female moviegoers. In the end even someone as talented as Seyfried can’t effectively sell us on her character's eventual pair-up with Egan’s whiny doofus no matter how loudly the Taylor Swift soundtrack presses her case.
In 1930 Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) an American socialite in search of debt relief and a fresh start transfers to Amalfi Italy. Her reputation as an indiscriminant adulterer comes along and she’s quickly the talk of the small town. Amidst her misadventures with married men she stumbles upon Robert (Mark Umbers) and Meg (Scarlett Johansson) a young blissfully married couple from America. Robert immediately strikes up a relationship with the older temptress and it’s immediately assumed by the resident paparazzi—a.k.a. citizens with binoculars and nothing better to do—that he is the latest prey. Meanwhile Mrs. Erlynne is being courted by another wealthier man named Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson) who can’t help but fall for her despite tepid interest on her end. When Meg learns of her husband’s rumored paramour she reacts hastily uncovering surprises that shock and affect all involved. The acting is where A Good Woman suffers. The female leads while both rightfully esteemed actresses are both miscast. Hunt’s Mrs. Erlynne has a world-wise and profound retort for every question thrown her way but her delivery just doesn’t fit her words; she seems uninspired but it’s much more likely her trying too hard. Johansson meanwhile is an anachronism in the film: She is an impossible sell for a reason having nothing to do with physical beauty or acting chops—she’s completely and simply at long last out of her element. But Wilkinson as always shines here as the pathetic yet adorable Tuppy. It’s perfectly plausible to see him in 1930s Italy—or any setting whatsoever. His eloquence befits the time and place and he makes his sad little man engaging funny and relatable even today. Director Mike Barker is charged with bringing A Good Woman adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan to the big screen. It’s a tall order to adapt someone as revered as Wilde especially on the heels of the widely lauded adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but Barker comes through for the most part. Luckily for him the lush mesmerizing scenery of the setting is at the forefront. And the director would’ve succeeded in transporting us back to the whole exotic pristine milieu had it not been for the aforementioned actresses’ inabilities to do the same. Nonetheless he holds up his end retelling a typically complex Wilde tale of love and narrow-mindedness without butchering or overstating the message.