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.
Set in 5th century A.D. The Last Legion follows the destiny of the young emperor Romulus Augustus Caesar (Thomas Sangster) the last of the Caesars. A palace coup sees his parents murdered and Odoacer (Peter Mullan) seated on the throne of Rome. With the protection and help of Aurelius (Colin Firth) and his ethnically-diverse band of warriors and with the spiritual guidance of Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley) Romulus gains possession of Julius Caesar’s sword--that’s “Excalibur” to you and me--and seeks to re-establish his kingdom far away in Britannia. But trouble is never far behind represented by Odoacer’s snarling henchman Wulfila (Kevin McKidd) and Ambrosinus’ old nemesis Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum) who are closing in--leading to a climactic battle in which good battles evil. Care to wager who wins? It’s hardly a surprise. What is a surprise however is that it took five credited screenwriters to cook up this medieval mélange. That Kingsley and Firth are better than the material isn’t surprising either; both are good actors and the material here simply isn’t. Firth is stalwart handsome and heroic--and that’s all that’s required of him. Kingsley has a few lively moments and the actual identity of his character is yet another non-surprise. Sangster gives a sheepish performance as the displaced boy king. Indian star Aishwarya Rai is alluring as the fearless warrior Mira another of Romulus’ allies who appears to emerge from each battle not only unscathed but with her makeup and hair completely intact. Her chaste romance with Firth isn’t so much predictable as an afterthought. McKidd and Van Gorkum chew the scenery in an effort to enliven the proceedings and Van Gorkum’s metal mask brings to mind the late-‘60s rock ‘n’ roll novelty The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. As Odoacer Mullan has only a few scenes before disappearing from the narrative entirely. John Hannah and Iain Glen drop in briefly to no discernible effect either to the film or to their careers. Doug Lefler a veteran of such small-screen swashbucklers as Hercules and Xena finds himself in familiar territory here. Unfortunately so does the audience. There’s almost nothing to distinguish The Last Legion from any number of medieval melodramas. The good guys are true blue the bad guys are truly vile--and all of it has a weary air. A few nudges of humor seem misplaced amid the clanking swords and flying arrows. In what may well be an effort to broaden the film’s box-office hopes--which won’t spring eternal for very long--some of the grislier scenes appear to have been trimmed. Those expecting a more vicious and visceral adventure may be disappointed by the PG-13 bloodshed on display here.