Review: Romeo and Juliet
PLOT: Romeo and Juliet, two teenagers at opposite sides of forever dueling families, fall in love at first sight. It doesn't end well.
REVIEW: Carlo Carlei's ROMEO & JULIET is a lovely looking film that lacks the fiery passion inherent in William Shakespeare's play, and has completely miscast the two lead roles. It's also altered the lines of the play in order to appeal to a younder crowd; in fact, by the looks of all the hunky dudes on display and the treacly, PG-13 romance that wallows in long smooches, this is noticeably aimed at the TWILIGHT crowd (or at the very least, high schoolers who don't want to read the actual play for class). And that's a shame, because nothing can be gained by pandering to the audience, especially when Shakespeare is involved.
Of course, the material is fairly touchy. (Pun intended.) Romeo and Juliet are both kids, essentially, so you can't exactly depict them engaging in hot, steamy action. However, their incredible pull toward one another is far more intense and borderline crazy than what Carlei can muster up here. Working from an abridged, simplified screenplay by "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellows, Carlei all but neuters the infamous romance between the two foolish youths. Think about how absolutely ridiculous these two are; they see each other at a ball, fall in love immediately, and their knowledge that their forbidden unity could end up destroying both their own lives and the lives of their families is undermined by the insane adoration each has for the other. That's some serious infatuation, so you had better sell the hell out of it.
But the casting of the two leads is the most fatal of ROMEO & JULIET's mistakes. Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT) and Douglas Booth both look very sweet and puppy lovesick at appropriate times, but both also appear as though they've just walked out of a Disney channel original movie. Romeo and Juliet can often be frustrating characters, so at the very least we had better believe their irrational ardor; Steinfeld, as engaging as she is, often looks a bit overwhelmed by the text, and simply never sells the character. Booth, who is clearly more male model than classical thespian, appears to be waiting for his cue to break out into a pop song at any given moment. He's got no rough edges, no heat; Carlei almost certainly cast him because he figured the girls would swoon at his every appearance on screen.
Carlei deserves his share of the blame. Just as the leads lack sufficient vigor, so too does the direction often come across as rather pat. As if Carlei was mounting the most expensive high school production of ROMEO & JULIET ever staged. Sequences that should be imbued with drama - the unforgettable "Wherefore art thou, Romeo" balcony scene or the death of Mercutio, Romeo's trusted right-hand man - are staged without inventiveness, so they have a superficial, obligatory atmosphere. Shakespeare not only demands actors up to the challenge, but also directors.
Thankfully, the movie has a few real pros in the ensemble. Paul Giamatti stars as Friar Lawrence, whose sympathy for the two lovers leads him to hatch a risky plan to whisk them away from their feuding families, is unsurprisingly excellent. So too is Lesley Manville as Juliet's harried nurse, who flits about the castle in a never-ending ball of concern. Damian Lewis ("Homeland") also brings some welcome fire to the proceedings as Juliet's stern father Lord Capulet. When these actors deliver their lines with gusto, ROMEO & JULIET briefly comes alive with the elegance and poetry of Shakespeare's words, and it becomes that much clearer that the Bard should only be interpreted by professionals. (Don't want to get too down on Steinfeld here, because as she proved in TRUE GRIT, she's a gifted young actress. But she's not ready for W.S.)
Speaking of Shakespeare's words, they've been toyed with a bit by Fellowes, who has clearly felt it his mission to make the text a little easier not just on the performers, but on the audience. I'm not immense Shakespeare scholar, but I'm confidant the line "You have good taste in men!" is not in the original play. Surely an indiscriminate crowd won't mind too much, but some of these "new and improved" lines really clang off the ear.
One other bright spot is the location: ROMEO & JULIET was shot in Verona, where the story is set, and the city provides more than its share of beauty. On the technical side, the movie has few flaws, as the costumes, production design and cinematography are all top notch. It's just a pity the main players have doomed this rendering of the famous love story to a stuffy death.