|Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth|
Director: Carlo Carlei
Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Ed Westwick, Paul Giamatti, Skellan Skarsgaard
Genre(s): Drama; Romance
DVD Release Date: February 4, 2014
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 22%
Romeo & Juliet is undoubtedly the most renowned and most tragic love story ever told, and one of the most famous of William Shakespeare's plays. Julian Fellowes, best known for the Emmy-winning Downton Abbey, has scripted the latest version of the Bard's tragedy, helmed by Italian director Carlo Carlei. Unlike Baz Luhrmann's Leonardo DiCaprio-starring 1996 version, this adaptation has a far more authentic setting -- it was filmed in Italy -- and authentic British accents -- although some are more authentic-sounding than others.
Fellowes has received harsh criticism for paring down Shakespeare's beautiful language, and in a sense "dumbing it down" for modern audiences. While that was not necessarily his intention -- he has admitted to aiming to please a young, modern audience, which is not the same thing -- as a Shakespeare fanatic and someone who has performed Shakespeare, I was disappointed that much of the language was altered or eliminated in order to appeal to his intended audience. Some of my favorite scenes are cut short or extended by unneeded modern "translations." Yet, enough of the famous and poetic language remains to keep me engaged in the story, to make the central love story as emotionally powerful and it is meant to be. Fellowes even added a few scenes, who do not detract from the story; a few, in fact, turn out to be enlightening and provide some interesting character development, such as the post-masquerade scene that shows how angry Tybalt (Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick) is and how important familial loyalty is to him. A few, like Benvolio courting Rosaline at the masquerade, are irrelevant and uninteresting.
Another aspect of the film that has been criticized is the chemistry between the two leads, Hailee Steinfeld (Oscar nominee for True Grit) and Douglas Booth (fairly unknown with bit parts in British miniseries), or lack thereof. Although Steinfeld, who was 16 when this was filmed, is exactly how one would picture Juliet, with her angelic features and beguilingly innocent beauty, Boot, who was 21 at the time, h is actually too handsome -- if that is possible for this role -- with his perfectly-sculpted face and smooth skin. His extreme features contrasted so sharply with her subtle ones that their mutual affection seem difficult to grasp. Their chemistry is nowhere near as awful as, say, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen's, though it is not as good as Claire Danes and DiCaprio's in Luhrmann's version. That said, Steinfeld and Booth certainly give it their all with the tricky diction and syntax, and despite their inherently flawed chemistry, thanks to the strength of their performances, we care about the characters and their relationship to feel affected by the tragic circumstances surrounding them and involving them.
As talented as Steinfeld and Booth are, they are often outshone by the supporting characters, especially the expertly-cast Westwick as Tybalt, the familiar face Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, and the hilarious Lesley Manville as the Nurse. No one appears to be actively struggling with the language, although some -- like seasoned Shakespearean actress Natasha McElhone (Lady Capulet) -- are more comfortable with it than others -- like the pre-pubescent-voiced Kodi Smit-McPhee (Benviolio).
The lush costumes and scenery are magnificent, and the filmmakers certainly need to applauded for their efforts in creating an authentic environment for this centuries-old story. Even the music seems to hit the right note -- pun sort of intended -- with its perfectly-timed swells and grand gestures. Some scenes are overly dramatic and are reminiscent of a soap opera, and are almost hilarity-inducing in this accidental melodramatic tonality. Yet, despite the film's obvious flaws, several of which could not be helped, Fellowes and crew have mostly succeeded in bringing Romeo & Juliet into the 21st century, while still staying true to the story and to the time period.