If you’re a product of the public school system in the United States, then you were probably subjected to “Romeo and Juliet” at some point. For me, it was in junior high school, with the highlight being that our teacher let us watch the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version in class. And there was a double bonus when our teacher, who was instructed to fast-forward through the nude scene, accidentally stopped the tape right on actress Olivia Hussey’s breasts. These things happen.
Of course Zeffirelli’s film was meant to be an earnest and straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, using the same language from Shakespeare’s original. But writer Julian Fellows, of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, wanted to change the language for this adaptation. “We were determined not to exclude that same young audience, those same young men and and women whose discovery of love, a discovery which is new for every generation, is being examined here.”
Which is pretty much just flowery words that mean, “Yeah, we pretty much rewrote this thing in the hopes of getting younger audiences into the theaters and keeping them awake.” Unfortunately, it also means that many of Shakespeare’s most famous dramatic moments have been undercut or dampened, and the end result is that the film feels more like the Cliff Notes than the play. The gist of Shakespeare’s words are there, but the life has been sucked right out of them.
Just in case you haven’t read or seen Romeo and Juliet, here’s an ultra-brief breakdown. Romeo is a Montague, and Juliet is a Capulet. The Montagues and Capulets hate each other. Romeo sees Juliet, falls in love, and they secretly wed. Tybalt, a Capulet, is pissed off, and tries to duel Romeo, but Romeo’s affable friend Mercutio intercepts him instead, and is killed. Things get complicated from there.
The setting and direction of this new version are meant to look like it is actually set in fair Verona, but this is a supremely Disneyfied version of that city, full of smiling extras making busy work in the background. It looks lush and opulent, but in the tawdry way a shiny travel brochure does. Nothing feels real about Verona itself, and soon it just feels like a theater shell, waiting for the actors to take their entrances. Armed with Fellowes’ revised Shakespeare, and under the direction of Carlo Carlei (Flight of the Innocent), one hopes that the actors would be the thing to buoy this to the surface.
But sadly, they do not. Hailee Steinfeld captured our hearts in True Grit, but her Juliet is all smiles and no substance. Which doesn’t matter much, since Romeo (Douglas Booth) looks and feels like he wandered in from an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog shoot. Tybalt (Ed Westwick) chews more scenery than Fatty Arbuckle in a house made out of cotton candy, and Stellan Skarsgard feels wasted as the Prince, although he does deliver a powerful turn in that small role. Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a bit over his head here, but he does have a shining moment when he delivers the bad news to Romeo.
There are some standouts amongst the cast, with Damian Lewis turning in a surprisingly deft performance as Lord Capulet. His vehement outburst with Juliet, spitting venom at her demanding that she marry Count Paris or leave his house is one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Christian Cooke delivers a solidly earnest performance as Mercutio, although his role is cut short far too early, pun intended. It’s no surprise that the most connected performance comes from Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. The man possesses an amazing gift of empathy, and he imbues the Friar with a sense of weighty responsibility and resolve.
Unfortunately, the movie could not be carried by these performances. Since the title is Romeo and Juliet, you really want them to own the film, and they simply don’t manage the task. At nearly two hours long, by the time Juliet is about to plunge the dagger into the sheath of her bosom, you’re wishing she would just get on with it.
Upside: Daman Lewis; Paul Giamatti; brief bouts of swordplay that will snap you out of your reverie
Downside: Vapid performances from Romeo and Juliet; needless tinkering with Shakespeare’s script
On the Side: Julian Fellowes once auditioned to be Hervé Villechaize’s replacement on Fantasy Island. He didn’t get the part.