I know this isn’t really a recent film but, with the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Romeo and Juliet last month, I decided, in order to compare and contrast, that it was time to watch the most recent film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most annoying plays. I know people generally love it because it’s about true love and shit but I just find it boring and really stupid. I mean people build these two teenagers up because they are so desperately in love with each other but they’re actually just idiots. Firstly, they know each other for about 2 seconds before they tie the knot and secondly they both die for really unnecessary reasons. It’s supposed to be the greatest love story ever told but isn’t it actually just the greatest story about horny teenagers ever told? I mean Romeo was madly in love with another girl literally seconds before he first saw Juliet. I don’t think we can trust anything he says about his feelings. Call me cynical if you wish but the idea that “true love” is so unconquerable that you must bow to its every whim is just a hyperbolic idea. Why does all love have to be so fucking insane that it leads to untold anguish and death? Surely the greatest love story ever told is one where two people fall in love over a prolonged period and become so comfortable and happy that they spend their lives together? Isn’t that what we should be striving for as a society? Not a crazy ride full of sword fights, feuding, and the death of two young people? Anyway, this turned into a massive rant so it’s best I just get onto the review.
When you think about it screenwriter Julian Fellowes is exactly the kind of person who would be super into Romeo and Juliet. The creator of Downton Abbey, the weirdly beloved period drama about rich people having rich people, is clearly going to love the tale of two young rich kids who end up dying. It’s basically an episode of Downton Abbey set in Verona. Which perhaps explains why so much effort has been put into the look of the film. This is a production that is focused on style and lavish backdrops have been created so the lovers can happily frolic in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The costumes are fairly astounding and the picturesque settings are just breathtaking. It adds to the authenticity of the production and ensures that the film remains beautiful throughout. However, there is little beyond the visual that really makes this film worth seeing.
If you ask me, there is little to get too excited about by Romeo and Juliet anyway. The characters always seemed like stubborn and irritating teenagers anyway but, in the hands of Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld, it is even harder to feel sympathetic towards their plight. Steinfeld was only 15 years old when the film was being made and she seems to struggle from the off to get to the substance of the lines she’s quoting. Steinfeld isn’t a terrible performer, as we have seen in True Grit, but she is merely saying lines instead of exploring the feelings and consequences lying behind Juliet’s words. ConsideringRomeo and Juliet contains some great quotes, it is disappointing that the language isn’t celebrated better. Douglas Booth, who was around 20 during production, is as handsome as you would want for the title role and seems to have a greater understanding of his character. However, he as the drama and emotions ramp up, he fails to rise to the challenge and becomes rather monotone and flat. Neither actor really creates much of an idea of the supposedly astonishing love that their words insist exists between them.
So we are faced with a film about Romeo and Juliet where the audience finds is difficult to care about either of the star-crossed lovers. When we don’t care about the doomed relationship what else is there about this story? Thankfully, there are some shining stars amongst the cast. The rest of the younger cast fair better than the main characters but they still seem to be at odds with Shakespeare’s tale. They are each starring in their own play and, when they come together, it doesn’t always gel. It is up to the senior cast members to provide the needed talent for the audience. It is Paul Giamatti who steals the show and manages to bring a credibility to normally caricatured Friar Laurence. Then Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, and Lesley Manville, as Juliet’s parents and nurse, all bring depth and emotion to their characters despite limited chances to do so. I can’t help but feel this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet would have excelled had it’s attention been elsewhere.
Director Carlo Carlei has placed his actors in some beautiful backdrops but doesn’t always manage to get the story across on screen. The pictures themselves are gorgeous but there is nothing about the direction that sets the audience’s passions alight. It’s all rather rudimentary and flat. The kind of shots that want to be arty and impressive but just become mindless. It’s as is the film-makers believed the film would just make itself but found the reality was less simplistic. Julian Fellowe’s script has taken the play and hacked it to pieces. It’s so oversimplified that any magic that the Bard’s script could have created is destroyed. It’s not enough to simply make a well-known love story in a pretty way. Romeo and Juliet just goes to show that there is more to adapting Shakespeare than pretty faces and good costumes.