If Plugged In had been reviewing plays in Elizabethan-era England, we would’ve had a lot to say about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Two young lovers disobey their parents, run off together and, in one of the most outlandish plot twists in literary history, kill themselves!? “This is what passes for entertainment these days?” we would’ve scribbled with our quills. “What is the 16th century coming to?”
Nobody would have paid us much heed, though. Because poor role models or not, Romeo and Juliet have become watchwords for romantic love—immortalized through song, story and art. In Verona, Italy—hometown of the two fictional lovebirds—there’s even a little courtyard, complete with balcony, where in this film lovelorn and lovesick women write letters to Juliet and hang them on the wall.
Sophie, an aspiring magazine writer on a premature honeymoon with her preoccupied fiancé, stumbles into the courtyard while knocking around the city. She watches as women write and weep. Then, as the Italian sun slowly sinks, another woman walks in with a basket, plucks the notes off the wall and carries them away.
The woman with the basket, along with a handful of other ladies, are Juliet’s secretaries. Every night they take the letters—handwritten pages filled with heartbreak, loss, celebration and love—and answer them. Sophie’s fascinated by this cadre of volunteers and, the next day, she’s allowed to join them. She goes to the wall and, as she plucks a few notes off of it, one of the bricks comes loose. Behind it she finds a letter, yellowed with age. In it, an English girl named Claire laments the loss of her Lorenzo—a boy she’s fallen in love with while on a tour of Italy. They planned to run away together, Claire writes, but in the end, she chickened out. She had other duties, and her parents would never approve. So Claire put the letter on the wall on her way out of the country, sick with love and shame, leaving Lorenzo waiting under their tree, alone, without even a good-bye.
Sophie writes back. No matter if Claire’s alive or dead or moved or married. It’s a letter deserving of an answer.
Days later, a furious young gent named Charlie bursts in on Juliet’s secretaries. His widowed grandmother—Claire—has returned to Verona to seek out her Lorenzo, he says. What a terrible idea, Charlie cries, to encourage an old woman to seek out her long-lost love.
“I’m sorry,” Sophie replies. “I didn’t know true love had an expiration date.”
Claire quite agrees and launches into her search—disapproving grandson in tow. Sophie, smelling a story, asks if she can tag along.
Amore gushes from the Italian countryside like water from a sponge in Letters to Juliet. Every surface is kissed with golden sun, every road leads to vineyards and balconies, every face seems to twinkle with goodwill and promise. While romantic love can manifest itself in some films as an amoral whirlwind, love in this romcom is often beautiful—bearing even a touch of the sacred. And it’s refreshing to see a film that tells us that eros can be just as powerful and attractive at 70 as it is at 20.
This is not to say that the film gives us a biblical view of it. There are certainly nits to pick. And we’ll pick some of them as we make our way through this review. But we do see love with honor here, free from secret seductions and tawdry love triangles.
[Spoiler Warning] Yes, Claire was a coward for leaving Lorenzo behind without even a word when she was a girl. Yes, she’s now back—after marrying and having a family of her own. But she’s a widow, and she gives every indication that she loved and honored her dearly departed husband. When she finds her Lorenzo, he makes a beautiful toast to both her late husband and his late wife. So it’s clear that this new love doesn’t negate what they felt for others.
When Charlie tumbles in love with Sophie, he tries to squelch his feelings out of respect for the fact that she’s engaged—apologizing profusely for an ill-considered kiss he plants on her. When Sophie realizes that she loves Charlie, too, she breaks things off with her fiancé before pursuing her new man. When she thinks Charlie’s found someone else, she tries to slink away and not interfere with his happiness.
But love here extends beyond romance, if you look closely. Though Charlie considers Claire’s quest for Lorenzo a waste of time, he travels with her anyway—protecting and guiding her. After Sophie suffers through a heartbreaking day, Claire comes into her room and brushes her hair—a moment made more poignant when you realize that Sophie, whose mother left her when she was 9, may feel a surrogate mother’s touch through the brushstrokes. Hospitality—a truly divine form of love—is everywhere, from the way in which Juliet’s secretaries welcome Sophie as one of their own to the way many “Lorenzos” greet Claire with warmth, kisses and sincere good wishes. In an age when few of us take time to smile at strangers, this cinematic Italy is a place where visitors swiftly become friends.
When Sophie asks where Charlie’s parents are, he says, “I’d like to think they’re someplace nice.” (We learn that they died in a car crash when Charlie was just a boy.) Lorenzo offers a toast to “all our loved ones, wherever they may be.” One of the “Lorenzos” has become a priest. Characters visit a graveyard filled with tombstones bearing crosses, and they later participate in a wedding led by a priest.
While it doesn’t seem as though anyone’s under the illusion that Juliet is guiding their love lives from beyond the grave (or wall of fiction), the courtyard dedicated to her has a shrine-like aura. The letters pasted there are reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, where sufferers write prayers on scraps of paper and stuff them into the crevasses between the stones. There’s also a statue of Juliet that visitors rub for luck …
… which has made one of its breasts far smoother and shinier than the other.
Sophie goes to Verona with Victor, her fiancé, believing that it’ll be the only honeymoon they’re likely to get. Victor asks Sophie to visit a vineyard with him, telling her that it’ll be romantic and honeymoonish—that they’ll “drink a little wine, get a little tipsy” and then have, the insinuation is, a little sexy fun.
We see the two of them share a hotel room. And they hug and kiss. (Nothing more.) Charlie and Sophie also engage in a little hugging and kissing, but invoking more romance than passion.
Before learning what became of Claire, one of Juliet’s secretaries imagines that she and Lorenzo either got married and still have passionate sex every night, or she married a duke and fantasizes about Lorenzo while she and the duke have sex. Claire recalls that her late husband used to think love was “nothing more than hormones,” but underneath the gruff exterior he had a “sweet, warm heart,” just like Charlie.
Charlie suggests to Sophie that they “hit the sack.” He means that they should trundle off to their respective beds, but it’s played for laughs as a double entendre. The opening credits feature artistic depictions of young lovers. (Most of them are classical paintings. Many depict Romeo and Juliet. And almost all feature two people kissing. At least one shows a woman with exposed breasts.) Charlie shows up without his shirt. Sophie’s outfits reveal cleavage and thigh. One of the “Lorenzos” wears a tight-fitting Speedo. Another licks his lips lecherously as he eyes Claire.
One s-word and one raised middle finger. Characters misuse God’s name about a dozen times and say “b-llocks.”
Sophie, Charlie, Claire and others drink wine and champagne.
One angry “Lorenzo,” when someone brings up the memory of a past love, begins to say how he curses everything about her, including her mustache.
Letters to Juliet is fiction, but the story’s hook isn’t far off reality. For the last century or so, people have written letters to Juliet and left them at the Bard’s preeminent character’s “grave,” where they’re gathered by volunteers who answer them. These days, there’s even a website (julietclub.com) to which folks write. The letters, both in the movie and in real life, illustrate the messy diversity encompassed within the word love: love lost, love found, love gone wrong, love that never was, romantic love, familial love, sacred love, profane love, love so messy that sometimes it’s tempting to wish that we didn’t or couldn’t love at all. Life would be so much easier. So much cleaner.
But, as Claire says, “Life is the messy bits.”
Not that love or life look particularly messy in Letters to Juliet. The film is as pretty as a painting, as inviting as a walk in the peach orchards. Messy? Life in this imagined Italy is perfect—almost too perfect. Except, of course, when it comes to a sadly contemporary view of sex before marriage.
Still, for context, I’ll share this: I saw Letters just two days after reviewing Jennifer Lopez’s The Back-up Plan. The contrast between these two films is stark. Back-up is tawdry, crass and self-consciously hip; Letters is, relatively speaking, clean, sweet and effortlessly timeless.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.