Can you feel the love tonight?
She's gorgeous. Every time she enters the frame she lights it up; it's as if the camera operator had collapsed in an apoplectic fit (“What sentimental crap!”) and, clawing at the camera as he went down, swung the lens at the sun. She's tall, regally tall, the height of queens (and kings, even) with cheekbones to match, and when she moves it's with a tilted head, suggesting her intensely focused interest on whatever life or the world is presenting to her at the moment (you, for instance). Her voice is delicate yet level--you can tell she's a sensible intelligence softened by love, by compassion. Her eyes are the startling blue of a high mountain lake you chance upon while hiking, and when she smiles--dear God, when she smiles that brilliant, wide-open smile--you're willing to take on the world and everyone in it, just to have her smile at you again.
Vanessa Redgrave is a wonderful actress--reportedly a tremendous one in the theater (alas, I've never had the good fortune to catch her onstage), and a striking presence on the big screen. Even in a largely wordless role as Ann Boleyn in Fred Zinneman's A Man for All Seasons (1966) her bright eyes and wide smile made her stand out (can you imagine if they actually gave her lines?). In Michael Apted's criminally underrated Agatha (1979) her role is essentially a long sustained joke, wherein we are asked to believe that someone with the charisma and stature of Vanessa Redgrave (playing Agatha Christie) can manage to hide herself away in a health spa without anyone noticing--and she pulls it off, too. Even more unlikely, she makes us believe she can be attracted to Dustin Hoffman (never an obvious romantic choice), perhaps even fall in love with him, that he is in fact worthy of her considerable attention.
We see her here and there, once in a while, and it's never enough. A haunting Ruth Wilcox in James Ivory's Howard's End ((1992), an amusingly bitchy Max (short for Maxine) in Brian De Palma's Mission Impossible (1996). She even contributed a vast amount of gravitas and conviction to the ending of Joe Wright's Atonement (2007)--more than it deserved, I thought, because the whole movie was essentially a fraud.
She's still doing it, still turning sows' ears into silk purses. In Gary Winick's Letters to Juliet a young girl named Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) travels to Verona on her honeymoon and is promptly abandoned by her restaurateur husband Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is pursuing various wine and cheese suppliers. Left with nothing else to do, Sophie chances upon The Juliet Club, a group of 'secretaries' who answer letters written to Juliet. Sophie herself finds and answers a letter written years before, in 1957, by a young English girl named Claire; seems she had abandoned Lorenzo, the love of her life, because she was afraid to commit to him as a girl of fifteen. Imagine Sophie's surprise to find the fifteen-year-old has grown into a graceful grandmother (Redgrave) who has come to Verona (thanks to Sophie's letter) with her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) to look for her lost Lorenzo. Claire invites Sophie along for the ride, and Sophie gladly accepts; she's intrigued by Claire, the same time she's irritated by Claire's stuffed cabbage of a son Charlie, who disapproves of all this 'long-lost love' foolishness (far as he's concerned there's only one man for his grandmother, who died years ago).
Redgrave takes what is essentially a plot function and brings it to warm, breathing life. Her Claire has seen years of suffering; you see it on her careworn face, her at times tired expression, her often calm blue gaze. At the same time she hasn't given up on the possibilities that life offers; when she flashes that million-watt smile, you know she's up for some naughtiness, if there's any to be had. She definitely hasn't lost her sense of humor--when the group meets an especially decrepit Lorenzo (the computer threw up over seventy of them in all), she has the alarmed-yet-delighted look of a sister trying to tiptoe away from a sorority prank gone wrong.
As for the rest of the movie--forget about it. Gary Winick directs by the numbers, though he does have the sense to hire Marco Pontecorvo (son of legendary filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo) to shoot the various gorgeous Veronan and Tuscan landscapes (I've got a theory about Italian cinematographers: that they basically set up their cameras and lights all morning, break off at noon, take long, leisurely lunches till around four in the afternoon, when the day has entered its magic hour--when sunlight is at its most beautiful--which is why their films look so ravishing. That, or they smear extra-virgin olive oil on their lenses). Seyfried has huge eyes and pretty lashes to bat over them, but she's paired with Egan's Charlie, who is what can only be charitably called a wet noodle, and you know he's a wet noodle because (please skip the rest of this and all of the next paragraph if you plan to see the picture) when she's dumping Victor and Gael Garcia Bernal puts on a hangdog look, he's so expressively pathetic you wish she'd dump Charlie instead (Yes, her fiancee ignored her throughout the picture but--look at him! Those pouting lips, the sad, Spaniel eyes!). Victor is so passionate about his wines and cheeses you know he'd be a good match for Sophie who, at least in my book, has a bigger, hairier pair than Charlie.
Of course Claire finds her Lorenzo, and of course he'll turn out to be Franco Nero (Redgrave's own long-lost lover--they secretly married, after years of separation, in 2006), and of course he'll be riding a white horse (whiskey commercials, anyone?), but even with this cornball moment Redgrave finds the truth in her character--half a minute before, while Lorenzo was riding up, Claire is caught in a fit of panic, and begs to be taken away. “He knew me when I was a girl of fifteen!” she says, terrified of the enormity of the moment, and we're both enthralled and terrified with her, hearts racing in time with his approaching gallop. One wishes Redgrave had a more productive career--she hasn't really worked with a lot of great directors, or done that many great films, she's really made more of a mark on the stage than on the big screen--but we're grateful for what we have gotten so far, even this deeply heartfelt performance in a nothing of a movie.
First published in Businessworld, 6.17.2010