I recall the first time that I really encountered Romeo and Juliet; I was required, like so many others, to read it in high school. Even then, it struck me as a beautiful tragedy that was truly transcendent, not just because it eulogized young love, but also because the mere countenance of Romeo and Juliet satirized that universal moment so well. I mean not to accuse the Bard of mocking adolescence, as he clearly treasured it in the bittersweet nostalgia laced throughout the play, but rather he displayed a lamenting critique on the loss of its pained urgency. I also distinctly remember that first meeting of the star-crossed lovers, because several peers reached the consensus that while the story is fabulous, someone should update that arcane prose (or “old words”).
In 2013, they have gotten their belated wish, albeit at the expense of any passion or adolescent rush, with Julian Fellowes’ Romeo and Juliet, the first film adaptation of the story where the young lovers are already lifeless before the opening stanza.
To be fair, adapting Romeo and Juliet in any age is difficult. The story more than permeates the culture; it IS the culture. By the time every 13-year-old is forced to open the play, the ending has been spoiled by homage, lampoon and a PTA meeting or two of outrage over the classic’s teen suicide and, worse, teen sex! Thus every filmmaker who has attempted it does so with the utmost obligation to make it feel accessible and fresh to the younger generation. For my own, it was the “experimental” 1996 adaptation Romeo + Juliet by cinematic madman Baz Luhrmann. He recreated the myth and passion with a film that burned hotter than a neon-lit Crucifix on a seaside beach located somewhere between Rio de Janero and Southern California. It was big, gaudy, loud, and, most of all, engrossing for a generation that will forever associate the Cardigans with Verona.
Yet for all the steam that still sizzles off Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes’ scenes in that film, it is also 17 years old! Passing the baton on to a new interpretation for the iPad Era not only seems apt, but preferable to teachers explaining why Jay Gatsby is wearing a hula shirt or how Carrie Mathison shooting herself somehow seems saner than Homeland. And if the creator of Downton Abbey has a more reverent take that returns the material to its original Renaissance Italy setting, I am more than interested. Yet, bizarrely, the iteration that features Mercutio dabbling in drag ended up far closer to William Shakespeare’s intent.
In the weirdest decision yet for a Shakespeare film adaptation, Fellowes does not merely follow the Hollywood tradition of condensing the poetry or moving certain lines around from scene to scene, thereby creating a greater cinematic impact. No, he only uses the occasional famous line, usually as an exclamation point for every scene. Rather than having his characters speak the prose that audiences have applauded for over 400 years, his screenplay throws in the towel of converting its target audience, and only gives them the Spark Notes version where the most famous lines are uttered, but huge swaths of dialogue reside in abridging the context for the audience. This could still have at least worked on an entertaining level, if so much else of the production had not also gone bare bodkin mad.
For what it is worth, the film does have the best ornate production design of any movie version of the story to date. Shot in the actual Verona, as well as Rome, and a variety of other Italian locations, the picture lives and breathes a truly Italian environment. More intriguing still, beyond the most historically accurate costuming of the era to date (at least according to the notes), the film also curiously shot the romance in the brisk cold air of late winter sunlight. The juxtaposition of young love and an almost-blooming countryside is only surpassed by a sole candlelight glow illuminating the frosted breaths during the infamous balcony scene.
Unfortunately, as pretty as the actual Renaissance frescoes and decorations are, they serve a hollow center. As the first film produced by Austrian luxury crystal makers Swarovski AG, the film is very much like their chandeliers: Exquisite craftsmanship, but once you turn out the lights, it still just hangs there. Likewise, Romeo and Juliet stars Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld are left out to dry by this gilded production.
Steinfeld, who wowed audiences and critics in her scene-stealing turn as Mattie Ross in the True Grit remake, fares less well here. Despite having grown into a lovely young woman, she is now 17-years-old, her Juliet seems less mature than Mattie did four years ago. However, this is partially due to the problem that occurs when one removes Juliet’s sonnets, soliloquies and monologues—she’s a very a passive character for much of the story and indeed follows Romeo’s lead all the way into the great beyond. However, the bigger issue stems from her lack of chemistry with Booth, whose romance with her seems as chaste as a high school rendition, even after a scene of them in the bridal bed together. Booth fits his role slightly better, as he is able to play a Romeo who is far less whiny than previous incarnations (one advantage of a scripting rewrite!), and also because he has such chiseled good looks that one imagines Juliet could have used the edge of his jaw for her happy dagger!
The real standouts in the cast are Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence and Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet. Lewis gets to mug for the camera as the oblivious father, both in rage and merriment, in a way that the Bard only glanced over while Giamatti’s Friar has more than a touch of Fellowes’ dowager countess in him. Repeatedly, he gets to slap sense into Romeo in a way that subsequent scholars could only dream, though tragically Romeo remains a slow-learner. However, when your Laurence and Capulet are more entertaining in their cunning wit than Mercutio (thanklessly played by Christian Cooke in a role reduced to increased growling and smugness), then something is rotten in the state of Italia. Forgive the mixed metaphors.
Just as the romance fizzles, the humor is muted by nearly all of the supporting characters, as the film goes through the motions of the tragedy with the rapture of a crime scene reenactment. Directed by Italian filmmaker Carlo Carlei, the picture is as stiff as the costumes are in the many sword fights (of which there are more than usual). Indeed, he follows in the footsteps of Franco Zeffirelli, another Italian director who also adapted Romeo and Juliet in a Renaissance setting. However, Zeffirelli came from directing opera and theatre, while as far as I know, Carlei’s resume strictly consists of Italian TV movies. Whereas Zeffirelli’s film sparkled as the first movie to do Shakespeare justice (sorry Olivier fans), this interpretation at best serves as a reminder of how difficult the needle Zeffirelli’s masterpiece threaded in 1968 was. By intentionally contrasting his film to the best Romeo and Juliet movie, Fellowes has done Luhrmann a favor by displaying that one can create a totally indifferent classroom babysitter out of the material. For never has there been a story of less woe than this version of Juliet and her Romeo.
Den of Geek Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars