Romeo & Juliet
(M) Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Ed Westwick, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Paul Giamatti, Damien Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard
The Bard is back on the big screen and with this latest adaptation of Romeo & Juliet producer Ileen Maisel – the driving force behind the project – has opted for something quite novel, a traditional telling. In recent times the fashion when it comes to adapting Shakespeare has been to use contemporary setting and dress, but Maisel believed that modern audiences had not been exposed to a traditional, romantic vision of Shakespeare’s most famous play. It has, after all, been 45 years since Franco Zeffirelli’s famous adaptation, still a classroom staple. So director Carlo Carlei’s vision of the greatest love story ever told takes us back to fair Verona in Italy and delivers beautiful mediaeval costumes.
A traditional retelling this may be, but a truly faithful adaptation it is not. The screenplay was adapted by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey fame. Turning an approximately three-hour stage play into a two-hour movie requires a bit of script wrangling, but in addition to this work Fellowes has also carefully and covertly updated some of Shakespeare’s language. The aim was to prevent the language from excluding a younger audience without losing the poetic cadence of the original text. To the untrained ear it all still sounds Shakespearean, but every now and then Fellowes has dropped in a phrase which slightly grates – sayings like “strike while the iron is hot” and “the best intentions pave the way to hell sneak in, and at one point Juliet’s nurse compliments her on her “taste in men.”
Romeo & Juliet assembles a reasonably strong cast of British and American talent. Unfortunately, the two leads don’t quite hit the mark. Hailee Steinfeld established herself as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actresses with her Oscar-nominated debut performance as the headstrong Mattie Ross in True Grit. However, she isn’t nearly as well suited to playing the sweet, innocent Juliet. British actor Douglas Booth, best known for his work in the mini-series Great Expectations, is a very pretty man indeed but also very bland. Kodi Smit-McPhee, on the other hand, is quite good as Romeo’s friend Benvolio and arguably would have made a more interesting and age-appropriate, if less dreamy, lead. Without a doubt though, the film’s scene-stealing performance is Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. Giamatti makes the Romeo’s counsellor and the young lover’s co-conspirator the most vibrant and emotionally engaging character in the film.
While visually appealing, this largely uninspiring adaptation fails to unlock any new meanings in delivering the story to a new generation. It won’t have the cultural impact of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adapation, but could well become the go-to version for high school English classrooms around the world.