Film Review: Romeo & Juliet

There are ever more ways to bowdlerize the Bard, as this misbegotten, "Why did they bother?" version sadly proves.

Carlo Carlei's new version of Romeo and Juliet is faithfully set in the Renaissance and populated by actors who seem even younger and prettier than those in Franco Zeffirelli's famously groundbreaking 1968 version. The settings and costumes are handsome, filmed on location, as it were, in Verona and Genoa, and everything seems pretty right.

And then the performers open their mouths.

What you hear onscreen is a strange, bewildering mash-up of Shakespeare's verse and newer, "adapted" and decidedly lesser language, in what one can only guess is an attempt at making the Bard more accessible to a new generation's ears. When Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks made their 1929 talkie of The Taming of the Shrew, the risible screen credit that became famous was "Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor," but this was as nothing compared to what screenwriter Julian Fellowes has done here. Has perhaps his “Downton Abbey” success gone so much to his head that he feels himself the literary equal of old Will himself? The intellectually insulting palaver he has added and substituted for the original language has a flat, bogus "period" ring to it, more suited to any assembly-line, big-studio period action epic, and is completely devoid of lustrous lyricism. You just sit there and think, "The bloody nerve!"

Carlei's direction feels more like that of a traffic cop, desperately keeping things moving at a frantic pace to engage young ADD-challenged, cellphone-staring audiences. At best, his movie occupies a blandly uninvolving middle ground between George Cukor's 1936 MGM classical approach and Baz Luhrmann's lurid, frantically updated 1996 edition. (Say what you will about the earlier version, which has become fashionable to excoriate with its 35+ age actors essaying teenage roles, etc., the performances, as well as the production, were utterly gorgeous.) Heavy, heavy-handed emphasis is placed on the laddish carousing of Romeo and his frustratingly interchangeable pals Mercutio (Christian Cooke) and Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and of course the fight scenes with Tybalt (Ed Westwick) and other enemy Montague hotheads. Amidst all the exhausting fuss and fury, romance flies straight out the window.

As Romeo, Douglas Booth, with his pouting male-model mien, looks as if he'd stepped right out of a fashion layout and breathlessly sprints about the sets to convey convincingly Italianate ardor. The pie-faced Steinfeld rather suffers in comparison, looks-wise, and like Booth reads her difficult lines with care, so much so that any real human feeling—not to mention poetry—is forestalled. Like Orlando Bloom (officially billed as "a romantic action hero for our time!") and Condola Rashad, concurrently making a cluelessly modernized hash of this play on Broadway, these two are fatally lacking in the one essential quality: chemistry.

The older actors fare somewhat better: Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) has a fit, aristocratic flair as Lord Capulet, while Natasha McElhone has little to do but looks spectacularly elegant and right as his wife. Paul Giamatti, who has officially replaced Paul Rudd as the screen's most employed actor, might have been the perfect Friar Laurence and does indeed invest him with puckish humor, but one's inescapable memory of what his character should be saying rather than what he actually is saying here—in Fellowes’ tragically diminished wording—keeps getting in the way of your enjoyment of his performance. With her famous, bawdy lines as the Nurse haplessly truncated and bowdlerized, Lesley Manville weirdly makes very little impression at all.