Directed by: Carlo Carlei; Runtime: 118 minutes
Wherefore art thou, Romeo and Juliet? You're there, somewhere, among this handsome adaptation of William Shakespeare's oft-told tragic romance, penned by the celebrated, Oscar-winning writer also responsible for one of television's most popular British period soap-operas, Downton Abbey. Perhaps it should have been expected that a talent like Julian Fellowes would want to leave his imprint on a revitalization of the storied play, to give this era its own tweaked version that isn't just a rehash of Franco Zeffirelli's classical telling or reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann's hyper-stylized yet faithful version. With Fluke director Carlo Carlei at the helm and meticulous, streamlined yet unnecessary rephrases of the bard's dialogue (and a few key scenes) throughout, Fellowes' Romeo and Juliet ends up classical and gorgeous in appearance yet contorted and oddly hollow in its delivery, hindered by regrettable casting of the star-crossed lovers whom leave it in a dispassionate state.
Fueled by Swarovski's newly-created entertainment wing, the production deserves credit for filming the Shakespearean tragedy in and around Italy to reproduce the 1600s era, where the location's opulence goes a long way towards justifying the experience. Carlei captures the storied feud between the Capulets and Montagues within the dusty, practical walls of a fictionalized Verona, ideal for sword duels and galloping horses, while the budding romance between doomed lovers Romeo (Douglas Booth) and Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) trots among its naturally whimsical architecture. The glowing ballroom, crisp hedge maze, and stunning balcony covered in ivy and weatherworn stone are ideal for the play's secretive eruption of instantaneous love, shot with scope and steady-handed vigor by Revenge of the Sith's cinematographer David Tattersall that adores the meticulous yet unpretentious costume work. Under different circumstances, this artistic perspective could have effortlessly made for a stunning by-the-book film adaptation.
The bright spots in Romeo and Juliet's invigorating setting are spread much too thin, though, as it moves between disappointing decisions in script and direction, combining teenage soapiness with bland emulation of Shakespearean theatrics and a tempo similar to Downton Abbey. Fellowes' script knowingly tinkers with the bard's language for its methodical updating, trying to stay in-character with Shakespeare's styling while it canters between acts alongside consistent Renaissance music. Signature lines stay intact, a "Juliet is the sun" here and a "... cut him out into little stars" there, yet others are reworked into awkwardly stripped-down expressions, a strange sort of carte blanche taken with the content. Fellowes checks off the significant points from the play -- he even retains a few scenes abandoned in previous adaptations -- yet pointlessly reworks them into deliberate copies of the early-English rhythm, leaving one wondering what the purpose was for doing so.
Revamping Shakespeare only works if the key performances can back it up, and that's where Romeo and Juliet falters. Our leads rarely show the right flickers of authentic passion, desperation, or lamentation, where the chemistry between Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth doesn't ascend far beyond that of a high-school rendition. Steinfeld appears uncomfortable in Juliet's skin, almost like her spunky character from True Grit has been forced into medieval garb and told to behave; granted, a "plainer" and sprightly Juliet sounds appealing, but it doesn't play well off her beau here. Douglas Booth, despite being a handsome and photogenic devil who's heavily reminiscent of Leonard Whiting himself, can't muster the melancholy poeticism or charisma that befits Romeo. From the second they lock eyes during the ball, there's hardly any sparks; their kisses, caresses, and adoring glances never encapsulate the fiery longing their tale so desperately needs. These two, borrowing a few words from Paul Giamatti's Friar Laurence, don't appear to know anything about wanting to play "Satan's game" with one another.
Despite the inherent futility of their houses' quarrel, the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets suffers the same fate as Romeo and Juliet progresses, where forgettable wooden performances cause it to fizzle into uninteresting background noise. Carlei clumsily orchestrates the sword duels in ways best chalked up to human ineptitude, yet the flamboyant personalities from either side, Christian Cooke's Mercutio and Ed Westwick's persistently grumpy Tybalt, barely make an impact; that excludes one slow-motion scenes involving Tybalt and his Capulets stomping their way towards a brawl. It's up to the veteran actors to salvage what's there: Damian Lewis and Natascha McElhone bring the pressuring Capulet parents to life, while the innocence of Kodi Smit-McPhee that hallmarked the likes of Let Me In and The Road plays well as the unable peacekeeper Benvolio. In essence, some redeeming value can be found in everything but the central romance and the nondescript feud igniting around them.
Without the star-crossed lovers striking a chord, however, Romeo and Juliet sluggishly inches towards its tragic climax, and even that doesn't come away unscathed; the awkward blend of Shakespearean language and Fellowes' unnecessary revisionism strikes again. There should be this enormity, this swell of emotion and hazard in the air amidst a scheme that might afford them a life together, yet despite a twist in Shakespeare's original text that could heighten the emotionality, director Carlo Carlei can't muster the heartbreaking potency needed. Despite Giamatti's quietly show-stealing performance as Father Laurence, expressing his care in unconventional ways as an unsung would-be liberator, it ends with a thud that one would unfortunately expect from their absence of magnetism. Perhaps this lackluster misfire will lead befuddled newbies in the direction of more lyrical and fiery cinematic adaptations, so they might discover a superior tale of Juliet and her Romeo.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 2/12/2014