Never has there been a story of more woe than Carlo Carlei’s lukewarm adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” that most eminent of romantic tragedies. The problem with this film adaptation is that it is about as romantic as a bad date and the acting performances are worthy of a pre-Glee high-school production.
Bringing the star-crossed lovers to life––or sucking it completely out of them––are Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth. The former, who earned an academy award nomination for her turn in “True Grit” apparently left her acting creds home the day of the shooting. The maturity and skill that won her accolades in the past are lacking here, Steinfeld’s Juliet comes across as little more than a wide-eyed teenager who hardly believes that someone is actually in love with her. In the worse scenes, her character barely exists. During moments when Steinfeld ho-hummed her lines while draped in shimmery Renaissance garb I wondered whether “Romeo and Juliet” would ever reach its tragic denouement.
Douglas Booth, on the other hand, seems to have been cast as Romeo by virtue of his looks alone. For it is his face, not his performance as an actor, that propels him through the story. Booth succeeds in portraying the world’s most famous man-on-a-mission as a bland weakling, particularly in the fight scene involving Tybalt and Mercutio, which really sets the whole messy tragedy in motion. Booth is good at getting misty-eyed, and does so in generous heaps throughout the film. Indeed, almost everyone cries, and do so with campiness, in “Romeo and Juliet.” Our lothario is also good at lamenting, his primary raison d’être in the last part of the film. I was not the only one in the audience who was relieved when Friar Laurence (Paul Giamatti) slapped Booth following a monologue that would have been far more compelling had it been delivered by another, more convincing, actor.
But the fault here does not lie just with Steinfeld and Booth. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes (“Vanity Fair”; 2004) gave dialogue a modern update–alas, it is the norm these days. The man who brought the world “Downton Abbey” wrote his own Shakespearean-sounding lines into the script and watered down everything that makes “Romeo and Juliet” a play that has stood the test of time. Even the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., weighed in on this fiasco: in an interview with Britain’s The Telegraph, a Library employee stated that the language in the film is “not Shakespeare’s word choices – and that’s a big deal.” Why Fellowes felt the need to mess with the Bard is anybody’s guess, but his rewrites sink the movie gloriously.
The film’s silver lining is its minor characters, especially Giamatti, who works hard to breathe life into his dialogue and make “it go as far as such poor stuff can go,” to quote a line from Emily Brontë, another famous British writer whose work has been cinematically violated over the years. Giamatti is his usual outstanding self as the resourceful friar, lending personality and depth to a character whose innocent scheming leads Romeo and Juliet to their tragic fate. His is a solid performance among a host of lackluster acting, although Stellan Skarsgård, as the Prince of Verona, manages a series of I-can’t-believe-I’m-in-this-movie-and-am-sporting-a-hideous-period-haircut expressions that are, at times, hilarious.
Finally, behold the scenery: filmed in Italy, the cinematography gives the viewer something worth looking at during the film’s nearly two hours’ running time. Art history lovers can get their fill of beautiful villas, gilded palaces, and delicate frescos while Steinfeld and Booth lumber their way through this unwieldy film. This is one to skip, folks: read the play, see it performed by a reputable company or, failing that, rent Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 masterpiece or the 1996 Baz Luhrmann extravaganza starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes who, for their time anyway, did it right. But the Carlei version of “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t alike in dignity: it’s a faux-pas that ought best be avoided.