It would be quite a task to count up the number of filmed versions of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” We’ve seen just about every variation on the story possible from the traditional Franco Zeffirelli adaptation to a musical rendition to a contemporary telling that shifts the setting to Verona Beach. For this latest version of the tale, director Carlo Carlei and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes favor a more traditional setting, taking the story back to its roots, quite literally, by filming directly in Verona and Mantua. This is the way the play has been done many, many times before. Not necessarily that they’ve filmed in the actual locations, but rather setting the film where the story is actually set. It’s what the play calls for, but given that we’ve seen the classical telling over and over, the filmmakers would need to make absolutely sure that their adaptation and casting are flawless so that it doesn’t become just another version among many that become forgotten.
The casting here includes many inspired choices, including Kodi Smit-McPhee as Benvolio, Christian Cooke as Mercutio, Lesley Manville as The Nurse, and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. However, the great bulk of the play rests squarely on the shoulders of those chosen to play the leads, and unfortunately that’s where this latest adaptation’s problems begin to arise. This is Douglas Booth’s first big role in a big film, and it sadly reveals that he wasn’t quite ready for it as he delivers a mostly bland interpretation of Romeo, lacking the passion necessary for the young lover. At first, Hailee Steinfeld seemed like a great choice for the part of Juliet given that she had blown everyone away with her great, Oscar-nominated performance in the Coen Bros. remake of “True Grit,” but just like Booth, she doesn’t make much of a mark on her role either. In fact, there are many scenes where she seems to be rushing through her dialogue as though it were some kind of race. When the audience is unable to feel the passion between the star-crossed lovers, then such an adaptation is going to be struggling from very early on.
For the most part, those adapting the play basically take Shakespeare’s original script and edit it to their liking, but leaving the lines intact. Fellowes has opted for a slightly different route in which he changes and deletes large portions of the original text while adding in his own simplified version of it. I don’t know about you, but when I watch a Shakespeare adaptation, one of the main reasons I enjoy it so much is because we get to hear his beautiful poetry, so imagine how jarring it is to have a version where it’s part Shakespeare, part someone trying to imitate or simplify Shakespeare’s words. As you can imagine, it’s enough to take you right out of the story on multiple occasions. As to why Fellowes felt the need to tamper with the Bard’s words and dumb down one of Shakespeare’s simplest plays is a mystery.
To my recollection, this is the first time I’ve had to give a negative review to an adaptation of “Romeo & Juliet,” but it just goes to show that if you don’t have the proper elements in place for such an adaptation (great leads, a properly-adapted script), then it’s going to be difficult to get the audience involved in the story, especially when it’s one that they’ve seen countless times before. Without these key ingredients, this version was just as doomed as the romance between these young lovers.
“Romeo & Juliet” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer of decent quality. There is a slight fuzziness to the picture throughout the film’s presentation, but it’s not enough to hinder viewing. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a little on the soft side, but as usual it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by turning it up a little. Otherwise, the audio is crystal clear, allowing you to hear every little sound perfectly. While there was room for slight improvement in both areas, the film has been given decent enough treatment to allow for an enjoyable experience.
Four Behind the Scenes Featurettes: Cast and Crew, Creating the Look, The Filmmaker’s Vision, and Hair and Makeup: These are four brief featurettes, running between 2-4 minutes each, that take a very superficial look behind the scenes at the making of the film. They do contain short snippets of interviews with the cast and crew, but unfortunately they aren’t given enough time to say anything in-depth about the film, so in the end we don’t learn much of anything.
With an adaptation lacking the necessary passion and script to bring “Romeo & Juliet” to life and a set of featurettes that don’t go into any depth, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this release is not recommendable. Carlei and Fellowes would have been far better off going with a more straightforward rendition of the Bard’s tale instead of trying to experiment with the dialogue. However, even if they had done that, it’s clear that the leads were not up to the task of portraying these characters in a way that would strike an emotional chord with the audience. What we end up with isn’t a completely terrible version, but even among the multitude of middling traditional adaptations, it’s doubtful it will be remembered.
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