by Ken B.
Two of the more well known adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 straightforward classic, and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 hyperkinetic modernization. They are both very good in their own respects, achieving their goals with ease. There have of course been many others, but no one really thinks of them when considering movie versions of the story. I feel like this, Carlo Carlei’s 2013 film, is destined to join them. This is a dull, unnecessary movie. It doesn’t have many new views on the story: it’s set in period Verona, which means nearly everyone has a stuffy upper-class British accent, and it essentially follows the storyline of the play to a tee. It attempts to be original by having screenwriter Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey) changing up much of the original dialogue with modified dialogue that sort of sounds the same, usually in the interest of shortening things for time. Unless you’re really paying attention, you don’t particularly realize any major differences, and when you do, you realize how awkward it is. Because I doubt that anyone literate enough to open this page wouldn’t be familiar with the plot, I’ll just start my review now.
In this Romeo & Juliet, Romeo is played by Douglas Booth and Juliet is played by Hailee Steinfeld. The leads’ performances aren’t particularly noteworthy – they’re adequate, delivering their lines at believable levels of emotion with an acceptable amount of chemistry. A supporting cast of Damian Lewis, Stellan Skarsgård, and Lesley Manville, among others, are similarly good, and usually better. One of the best components of the cast is Paul Giamatti’s Friar Laurence. Despite the character’s limited screentime, the Friar is an undoubtedly important character in the story, and Giamatti recognizes this and works to its (and his) strengths (although Lewis shouldn’t be completely discounted, either. The scene where Lord Capulet discovers Juliet’s reluctance to her arranged marriage to the County Paris deserves special mention).
Yes, there’s no doubt that the more seasoned actors are the ones that stand out, and you also get the sense that they’re at least somewhat aware of the trainwreck that this movie often becomes. A movie, especially of a story that’s known around the world and has been adapted countless times in different forms, needs to answer one question: Can it justify its existence? Carlei’s Romeo & Juliet ultimately can’t say it can. Maybe it wants to introduce Shakespeare to people just before high school age, before they inevitably deal with the original play. The problem is that this 118 minute movie has too many stretches of longer, dragged out pacing to do so successfully, and the dialogue will still be seen as off. Maybe it was made for people more familiar with the text, to see it a new light. That can’t be it, either, as there’s not much of the original text and nothing else is very new.
Technically speaking, this movie is significantly better. Abel Korzeniowski’s score seems reminiscent of the kind of music used in Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, with lush strings and piano, and except for a few overly excessive moments, I thought it was alright. The scenery and cinematography by David Tattersall highlight the setting beautifully, along with colorful costumes to match. After all of this, it can be said that the only real problems around here are related to creative elements, particularly the script.
Ultimately, this version of the classic play can’t succeed for one reason: it’s pointless. There are good qualities, but good qualities don’t automatically make a good movie: they have to work with each other to create a good product. The parts for a worthwhile adaptation were there: a screenwriter with talent (although the actual screenplay is another story), some good cast members, and great production qualities, but it was applied in such a way that it doesn’t matter. There really isn’t much else to be said. There are some great adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, as I mentioned at the start of my review, and those should be sought out instead. This version doesn’t bring anything fresh or particularly interesting to the table. This is a movie that just exists with little life or motivation for much of it, and that’s why it fails.