Wherefore art thou, “Romeo and Juliet”? Not much of Shakespeare’s play remains in the heavily pruned text that Julian Fellowes has fashioned as the screenplay for Carlo Carlei’s film, which comes across like a dumbed-down Cliffs Notes version of the classic directed at the “Twilight” crowd. (It’s a small mercy that Romeo doesn’t turn out to be a vampire.) Not that any true lover of the Bard will mind that the abridgement is so severe, because the delivery of the lines that remain is generally so inept that hearing them spoken with such lack of attention to their poetry makes one wince, especially as they’re also smothered in an atrociously sappy score by Abel Korzeniowski that’s all swooning strings and tinkling pianos.
The template for this Fellowes-Carlei misfire is obviously Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 picture, which broke ground by casting actual teens—Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey—as the doomed Veronese lovers. This one does likewise, with Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth taking the roles. They’re both extremely pretty—as are the Italian locations, well caught in David Tatersall’s widescreen cinematography. But Steinfeld in particular can’t handle the verse, reciting her lines in a dull, insipid drone that sometimes trails off into mere mumble, and while Booth’s delivery is at least fairly clear, there’s no music to it. Both of them, moreover, appear more interested in their poses than their performances, a tendency that Carlei and Tatersall encourage not only with lingering close-ups (the first full view of each might have stepped off the pages of a glossy fashion magazine) but with sequences of the couple kissing in a sun-drenched meadow or snuggling in their marital bed, half-dressed of course. The result is a movie that feels like a pilot for a CW series—that network has started moving toward period pieces, after all. You’ve probably witnessed better performances than these in amateur mountings in high-school auditoriums.
So what’s good about this misguided version of the play? The locations are lovely, to be sure, even if the ornate interiors and winding streets encourage too much vacuous running about and too many long-winded tracking shots. Carlo Poggioli’s costumes are exquisite. And some of the older actors offer winning turns. Paul Giamatti, for instance, strikes the right note as the lovable—if bumbling—Friar Laurence, who concocts the plot to keep the two lovebirds together that goes tragically awry. Though his recitation of the lines hardly evinces a classical tone, the genial delivery works. Lesley Manville, as Juliet’s querulous nurse, also registers well, though the decision to retain so much of the role—in comparison to other characters—might have been a miscalculation. Damian Lewis scores as Capulet, especially in the moment when he threatens his daughter with disinheritance unless she agrees to marry Paris. And Stellan Skarsgard brings authority to the stern prince whose city’s peace is being wracked by the family feud.
Among the younger actors, too, there is some compensation: Christian Cooke (Mercutio) and Ed Westwick (Tybalt) show intensity and energy—too much, perhaps, in the swordfights, which Carlei seems to have a fondness for without staging them terribly well, and Kodi Smit-McPhee has a few touching moments as a very young Benvolio. But otherwise, among young and older alike, mediocrity reigns. The nadir is certainly reached toward the close, when Benvolio, replacing Shakespeare’s Balthasar, arrives to inform the exiled Romeo of Juliet’s supposed demise. The problem isn’t just that Fellowes indulges in some rewriting here, but that he hands over some of the lines to a servant played so poorly that you could swear that the director enlisted an unsuspecting member of the crew to get into costume and do the scene. It is interesting, however, to see Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick’s erstwhile aide-de-camp (who played Lord Bullingdon in “Barry Lyndon” and took smaller roles in some of the director’s other films) show up as the apothecary. He’s no better an actor than he was years back—in truth he was never very good—but it’s nice to observe that he’s still functioning.
Shakespeare will survive this version of “Romeo and Juliet” just as he has Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 reimagining, which at least had the virtue of being imaginative. Carlei’s take on the play is just a traditional one badly realized, and as such it has plenty of company—like the recent DVD of Dominic Dromgoole’s 2009 staging at London’s restored Globe Theatre. Maybe it will appeal to teen girls; others need not investigate it. If you’re looking for this sort of flamboyant, youthful film version, Zeffirelli still holds pride of place.