By Ed Symkus
Has time run out for movie versions of the “timeless” story of “Romeo & Juliet”? Weren’t audiences satisfied when Franco Zeffirelli introduced his cast of young unknowns in a lush presentation in the late 1960s, or when the story of forbidden love went the musical route a few years earlier in “West Side Story?” How about when Baz Luhrmann radically updated things in the mid-1990s with Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes taking on the iconic roles in the supposedly hip “Romeo + Juliet”?
This new one (notice the absence of the phrase “new and improved”) goes back to basics, to the Verona of sometime around 1400, sticks to Shakespearian English, and again features fairly new faces in the title roles. Brit actor Douglas Booth’s biggest credit to date was as Pip in a TV min-series of “Great Expectations,” and Hailee Steinfeld has a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for “True Grit.”
The story in a Renaissance nutshell: You’ve got your two wealthy Italian families – the Montagues and the Capulets, who enjoy each other’s company about as much as the Hatfields and the McCoys. The hot young Montague named Romeo stumbles upon the sight of the gorgeous (his opinion) young Capulet named Juliet at a masked ball (I always found it odd that they’re wearing face-covering masks yet practically swoon over each other).
Ah, young love, and the first of many kisses. You might want to grab a pen and make a hash mark each time Booth and Steinfeld kiss, but you’ll want to bring a lot of paper, and you’ll want to hope that there was a hefty budget for breath freshener on the set.
But hold on. There’s trouble enough, what with them being from different sides of the aisle, but here comes Juliet’s angry, sword-wielding cousin Tybalt (Ed Westwick, best known as Chuck on “Gossip Girl”), who hates Romeo because, well, he fully believes he’s supposed to hate Romeo.
Shakespeare and his newest adaptor, Julian Fellowes – who does stick mostly to the original play – give us plotlines involving the bonds of friendship, the politics of feuding, the power of the church (or at least the attempts of one friar to smooth things over), a secret marriage, the fury of parents whose children don’t do what they’re told, and all sorts of tragedy, involving swords, daggers, magic potions and poison.
But while these ingredients have made for a gripping story in the past, and have held theater audiences in thrall for centuries, there’s something missing here. Oh, we get a fine performance from Douglas Booth, who appears quite at ease with the flowery language; and Paul Giamatti reaches just the right levels of scenery chewing as Friar Laurence, as does Lesley Mannville as the character known only as Nurse. The problems fall on Steinfeld who, in conjunction with director Carlo Carlei, gives a flat, uninteresting performance as Juliet. It’s an instance of what they call in the business “miscasting.” She’s believable when silently staring, through love-struck eyes, at Romeo, but unlike Booth, she’s not a natural with the style of language.
Page 2 of 2 - Production design and costuming are strong, and the film moves along at a good clip, but – and blame this squarely on Mr. Shakespeare (or is it Francis Bacon?) – the morbid ending that has plagued every stage and movie production before this one and will continue to on every future one, is of eye-rolling absurdity. Of course, there are those fans who disagree, and break into tears every time our hero and heroine do what they do in their final scene. And if you can’t get enough of this stuff, “Romeo and Juliet in Harlem” is set for a 2014 release.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
ROMEO & JULIET
Written by Julian Fellowes; directed by Carlo Carlei
With Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Paul Giamatti