William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is one of his plays that have been done to death. I can’t even keep track of all the adaptations, but on top of that there have been other versions that were at the very least inspired by this classic tragedy (“West Side Story” is the most obvious example). Since Shakespeare’s time, “Romeo and Juliet” has been done in many different styles and taken place in various time periods. It seems that the only way to do a production of the play these days is to break free of the way it was during Shakespeare’s time. Baz Luhrmann’s modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” was absolutely entrancing in how it made us feel like we were watching the play again for the very first time, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes never had a shortage of chemistry between them.
So that makes this latest “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Carlo Carlei and adapted to the screen by Julian Fellowes, comes across as a renegade version for they have instead brought Shakespeare’s work back to its traditional and romantic version. It is filled with medieval costumes, balcony scenes and duels, and the filmmakers even got the opportunity to shoot it at the story’s original location of Verona, Italy. But for all the effort put into this umpteenth film adaptation of this famous tragedy, the whole endeavor really feels like it is severely lacking in passion.
Perhaps the main problem is the lack of chemistry between the two leads, Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld. When they first meet at the dance, their instant attraction to one another is not quite palpable and it almost feels forced. While both actors do their best to connect with one another, their relationship never seems believable enough for us to really care what happens to them. Towards the end, I started to get impatient and kept waiting for Romeo to do himself in already.
Steinfeld is a wonderful actress, having given a deservedly Oscar nominated performance in “True Grit” (though she should have been for Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress), she does well in the role and has quite a radiant smile that lights up the screen. At the same time, Steinfeld seems miscast in this role when paired with Booth. Even though Steinfeld is around the same age as Juliet is in the play, she seems too young to be taking on this famous role now. It’s a shame to say that because she certainly isn’t bad, but I came out of this movie feeling that an actress just few years older might have fit the bill a little better.
As for Booth, it takes a little too long for him to come to life as Romeo. When we first see him, he doesn’t seem all that crazy about Rosalind even though we see him making a bust of her likeness. Even during that classic balcony scene, the quick attraction between him and Juliet feels awkward as they still don’t seem quite as madly in love as they are supposed to be. Booth’s performance does get stronger as the movie goes on, but he never digs deep enough in the role to where we care deeply about his plight.
Carlei, whose work as a director I am not familiar with, does capture the beauty of Verona, Italy to where it made me want to get on a plane and visit it sin the near future. His handling of the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues, however, is not clearly defined, and we never quite get a full idea of what made them hate each other so much in the first place. This is the original gang story for crying out loud! As for the battle scenes, they feel a bit too staged and could have been worked on more to where they could have been intensely exciting. Even though many of us are very familiar with the play “Romeo and Juliet” and how it ends, there are still ways you can draw audiences into the story to where the story can deeply affect them.
Fellowes is best known these days for creating the popular show “Downton Abbey,” and he seems like a natural to adapt any Shakespeare play let alone “Romeo and Juliet.” He preserves the dialogue for the most part, and it’s clear that he has a deep love and understanding for the Bard’s words. At the same time, this film has been severely affected by a misleading advertisement which stated that it would not be using Shakespeare’s traditional dialogue but would still follow the play’s plot. But having been exposed to this play many times before, I really couldn’t tell the difference between what Shakespeare wrote and what Fellowes came up with. Go figure.
It’s a shame because this “Romeo & Juliet” still has a number of great supporting performances that will make it worth watching for some. Ed Westwick makes a fierce antagonist out of Tybalt, his eyes filled with rage over a betrayal he can never forgive. Lesley Manville, perhaps best known for work with Mike Leigh, is priceless as the Nurse and succeeds in taking the character from her ecstatic highs to her tragic lows. Manville never misses a beat every time she appears onscreen.
There’s also Damian Lewis, the star of a show I should be watching (“Homeland”), as Lord Capulet, and he gives the character of Juliet’s father a twisted feel which really makes his performance stand out. Kodi-Smit McPhee is very strong as Romeo’s good friend Benvolio, Natascha McElhone gives us a sympathetic Lady Capulet, and Stellan Skarsgård is a welcome presence as always as the Prince.
But it’s really no surprise to see Paul Giamatti stealing the show as Friar Laurence. In fact, it’s truly one of the best interpretations of this role that I have ever seen. Friar Laurence is the moral center of “Romeo & Juliet,” and he sees the union between these two as a way of bringing peace between the Capulets and the Montagues. You can tell that Giamatti put his heart and soul into this part, and we weep with him when his well-intentioned plans fall apart so tragically.
Still, despite all the great performances, this “Romeo & Juliet” never really comes to life in the way a truly great Shakespearean production does. The language in each of Shakespeare’s play is so rich, and it can be so intoxicating to take in when it’s done right. That’s certainly how I felt after watching Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, but Carlei is not as successful in making this famous playwright’s words come alive, and he is working from a script by Fellowes.
Every generation definitely deserves their own version of “Romeo and Juliet,” but this one is not going to do the trick. They will be better off with Baz Luhrmann’s version which ended up breaking my heart as it made me want to see these two lovers come together and cheat death. Or perhaps it was just that big crush I had on Clare Danes at the time that made the movie affect me so much. Oh well…