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.
The film follows the journey of the title character (Kirsten Dunst) the winsome sweet-natured teenage archduchess of Austria who is dispatched by her family in the late 1700s into a politically advantageous marriage to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) the future king of France. While the trappings of the royal palace at Versailles are as extravagant and glamorous as any traditional historical biopic the heart of the film is Marie Antoinette’s smaller more emotional world as she struggles to fit in with the puzzling customs and often-stern judgment of a foreign court. She must also fulfill her duty to her own nation—namely producing an heir to safeguard their political status a task that proves increasingly frustrating as she romances her maddeningly reticent new husband. Much like any modern young woman in our era of airhead heiresses she initially soothes her angst by indulging in excessive shopping sprees wild parties and flirtations with a hunky war hero. But she also eases into her role on the throne only to find that her starving angry peasant subjects have taken a harsh view of the gossip surrounding her profligate behavior as they mount the French Revolution. As a child actress who worked steadily into her teens and early twenties Dunst has always been a fresh sunny presence on screen in popcorn films like Bring It On but who could also reveal an ability to access darker corners as she did in her debut performance in Interview with the Vampire and in Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides. But after her breakthrough role in 2002’s Spider-Man most of Dunst’s subsequent efforts seem to have be chosen more to build her Hollywood stardom than challenge her acting skills and perhaps unchallenged she delivers performances more competent than compelling. Marie Antoinette is a welcome return to a more complicated and conflicted role and she rises to the challenge admirably with her most appealing and most affecting turn to date. Utterly capturing the queen’s evolution from naïf to sophisticate gaining wisdom and maturity from her youthful frustrations and overindulgences Dunst makes Marie’s plight utterly relatable and imbues virtually every scene of the film with a watchability that outdoes even the luxe production design. In only her third—and most ambitious—film writer-director Sofia Coppola continues on her hot streak. Already one of the most atmospheric and subtle helmers working in Hollywood she not only marries her modern dreamlike style to the opulent visuals of a historical drama she effectively redefines Marie Antoinette in a way that any alienated over-her-head teen of today could appreciate while also showing just why the population at large might have considered her a monster. As Coppola is the quiet introspective daughter of a revered famously over-the-top filmmaker she too was thrust into a sophisticated world at an early age and was with her much-panned acting turn in The Godfather Part III certainly misunderstood by the public if not reviled. One is tempted to think a certain reliability applies to her success with her story. But her assured skills as a filmmaker are what really make Marie soar—even her experimental touches such as the use of anachronistic music on the soundtrack (the Strokes Bow Wow Wow New Order and others appear alongside Vivaldi). It make perfect sense in context the kind of tunes a disaffected adolescent might play in her bedroom while wondering why no one understands them. That’s just the icing; the rest of Marie’s delectable cake is well worth eating.