Other than honoring the essence of the material and presenting it in a competent fashion, there are no hard rules when it comes to film adaptations of Shakespeare. For every traditional staging by Laurence Olivier or Franco Zeffirelli, there’s an Othello set at an all-white high school with The Moor as a basketball phenom (Tim Blake Nelson’s O) or an animated Hamlet on the Serengeti with anthropomorphic African wildlife (The Lion King). With those adherences and liberties in mind, exactly what Julian Fellowes hoped to add to the Shakespeare film canon with his new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is unclear. Replacing the “and” with an ampersand, the driving force behind Downton Abbey otherwise takes the blandly straightforward route, a means that seems especially paltry after Baz Luhrmann’s brave 1996 modern reworking.
If nothing else, the main asset of Romeo & Juliet is that its clunkiness may inspire viewers to dust off their copies of the play to see what was changed. Bending the text right out of the gates, the initial scene of a ring jousting tournament between the Capulet and Montague houses (which we’re told is a means of exercising their rivalry in a safe environment) hints at troubling filmmaking ahead. Post-contest, the two houses sadly quarrel with no thumb-biting of which to speak and Lords Capulet (Damian Lewis) and Montague (Tomas Arana) engage in some silly old man swordplay before the Prince (Stellan Skarsgård) breaks things up and issues his “one more chance” edict. The steel-crossing staged about as bland as can be, director Carlo Carlei (whose last big screen endeavor was 1995’s dog reincarnation weepie Fluke) finds himself in a deep hole early and keeps on shoveling once the young lovers make their entrances.
While it’s kind of nice that, like the Zeffirelli version, the ambiguously teenage Juliet is played by an actual teenager (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld), the sorta-accuracy is abandoned with the 21-year-old Douglas Booth as Romeo. The two have decent chemistry in their numerous shared scenes, but the cinematic factors surrounding them almost entirely negate their efforts. Though Steinfeld speaks Coen better than Shakespeare, she’s further crippled by Fellowes’ lines, which tend to either put too much emphasis on rhyming or be so casual, abrupt, and modern that they hint at conversation styles not yet in practice in the faithful setting. The film’s greatest misstep, however, is Abel Korzeniowski’s omnipresent, intrusive score. Unimaginative at every turn, violins swell at all the big emotional moments while textbook piano tinkling attempts (and fails) to give the music some much needed diversity.
Faced with such a stacked deck, the respectable cast of supporting players can only embarrass themselves. A miscast Paul Giamatti makes odd faces as Friar Laurence and is generally distracting, though not in the good vintage side character way that’s typically his forte. Lesley Manville is about the only bright spot as the Nurse, yet even her victory feels more the result of chance editing than personal skill. Slow and stilted, like a high school class’ first read-through, Romeo & Juliet is a thoroughly tedious exercise. Though the material remains capable of inducing chills, here they’re purely nostalgic, emanating from memories of better productions or of studying the text itself, certainly not from this latest rehash.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.
Romeo & Juliet is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.