Monday, June 20, 2011
Letters to Juliet
I usually avoid what are generally known as "chick flicks", not because I'm not a chick but because they're so often unwatchable. The notion that books and films can be tailored to appeal to women and not to men is perfectly acceptable as long as it's limited to genres that have no pretensions to quality. Romance fiction is no worse than Mickey Spillane. If women's films come closer to my definition of a good film, being more to do with faces than explosions, they indulge in just as many platitudes as any of the current comic book films. But good fiction is good no matter who writes it - Colette or Montherlant - or for whom they write it. And good films are too few to bother about the sex of their makers. Great art enriches everyone.
I am now at an age when the Shakespeare love poem that appeals to me more is not "Romeo and Juliet" but "Antony and Cleopatra". "Romeo & Juliet" was probably written in 1595, when Shakespeare was 31. "Antony & Cleopatra" was written in 1606, when he was 42. Although there is only eleven years between them, the latter play represents a lifetime of experience of love and literature. It is a hymn to grown-up love, about two people who have seen enough of life's let-downs to swear off love forever. Yet they find in each other reason enough to defy the world.
It is the earlier play, of course, about teenagers in love, that is the most popular. Somewhere in Verona, Italy, the setting of the play, there is even an old balcony to which tourists flock that tour guides have called "Juliet's Balcony". This is where the film Letters to Juliet (2010) takes off, without actually leaving the ground. Based on a non-fiction book about the women who leave letters stuffed in a wall near "Juliet's" balcony, the film tells the story of one such woman, whose letter went unnoticed for fifty years until an American writer finds it and writes a reply to her.
The film is nothing more, really, than an elaborate excuse to reunite two actors, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero. But what fictional story could possibly be more romantic than their true story? They met in 1967 on the set of the movie Camelot; she was 30, and so beautiful that they cast her as Guinevere; he was 26, and so beautiful they cast him as Lancelot. They fell in love, had a child, parted company, met again in 2006, fell in love all over again and got married.
Throughout the film I found myself growing impatient with the story of Sophie and Charlie, which seemed utterly boring, particularly since the actors playing them, Amanda Seyfried and Christopher Egan, are pretty but flavorless. Seyfried can act but has the voice of a twelve-year-old, which is a common shortcoming of American actresses (pace Elizabeth Taylor). When Redgrave was her age, she was already an accomplished actress. It's impossible to imagine anyone wanting to see Seyfried in a film fifty years from now when she's Redgrave's age.
I might have said that the two reasons for watching Letters to Juliet are Tuscany and Vanessa Redgrave. But I stopped looking at Tuscany when Redgrave appeared.* Her political activism, which included her open support of the PLO, earned her no friends in Hollywood - which was their loss. To call her one of the greatest living actresses is too mild. She is easily one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. Franco Nero, who lost his hair decades ago but somehow got it back recently, looks like a grizzled lion beside Redgrave, the fire in his blue eyes dimmed but still burning at 68.
* Redgrave herself directed an off-Broadway production of "Antony and Cleopatra" in 1997.