Romeo and Juliet (2013)
Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Paul Giamatti, Lesley Manville. Directed by Carlo Carlei.
If the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation of Romeo and Juliet settled one thing for me, it’s that when it comes to Shakespearean films, it is the language that matters most. You can do almost anything you want with the sequence of events, the setting, the characters, and the themes, but keep the language roughly intact, and at the very worst, your production will at least carry with it the strength of the greatest writer of the western world.
Now here is this 2013 adaptation, written by Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for writing the script for Gosford Park and also created Downton Abbey), directed by Carlo Carlei, and seemingly informed primarily not as much by the Shakespearean drama as by the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli movie with Olivia Hussey. In look and feel, it seems to owe just about every concept to Zeffirelli, going so far as to include the line, “The Maresca!” in the scene where Romeo first lays eyes on Juliet at the Capulets’ masquerade party, a line not written by the Bard.
It stars a rather talented Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, Douglas Booth as Romeo, and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. As Juliets go, Steinfeld lacks the animal abandon of Olivia Hussey or the contemplative mysteriousness of Claire Danes, coming across instead as a pretty, possibly athletic, very personable girl next door. While Hussey would come over to your house after school and tear your shirt off with her teeth, and where Danes might come over to help you with your chemistry homework, Steinfeld seems the sort to come over and kick your butt in Halo. She delivers the lines well, and the way Carlei directs her is one of his better decisions. While some might call it a passionless performance, this Juliet is about as even-keeled as a Juliet can be, seeming to take things the way an infatuated teen of the 2010s might deal with the circumstances.
Booth as Romeo is flat and unmemorable, and Giamatti tries his best as Laurence, but with just about everyone around him underacting, Giamatti’s effort comes across as overacting, something that pains me to say. The actors who play Mercutio, Benvolio, Tybalt, the Capulets, and the Montagues are all not bad, but their scenes, even the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, feel lifeless and kind of dull. I am not saying I long for the melodrama of the Zeffirelli picture or the audacity of the Luhrmann film, but some kind of electricity in a film like this seems a necessity, and I blame its absence on the unwise decision to rewrite Shakespeare’s words.
If you’re familiar enough with the play to recite certain important lines along with the characters, you’ll be pleased to discover that most of those lines are preserved, even though some are moved to unexpected places (Romeo’s “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” lines, originally near the beginning of the balcony scene, are recited instead at Capulet’s party), but it’s those spaces in between those key lines, where Fellowes tries to move the story along in some Shakespearean fashion but with fewer words, that hold this film down. Much of the dialogue sounds completely out of place, linguistically speaking, noticably absent the rhythm, flow, and poetry of the source material, as if the script were based on the modern pages of those side-by-side parallel traslations of the play. You get the gist of things, but the beauty is nowhere to be seen.
That is, the beauty is nowhere to be seen in the newly written lines. In this Renaissance-era Verona, there’s beauty almost everywhere you look. Many of the sets look like fresher, cleaner versions of the lovely interior shots in the 1968 movie, and this has perhaps the best-looking balcony scene yet. Even Romeo’s new digs in Mantua, after his banishment, look like the kind of place one of Verona’s wealthiest families might put up their only son. Costumes, surely inspired by Zeffirelli’s film, are also great,
If I were still teaching Romeo and Juliet to ninth-graders, I might show this film after a thorough study of the play, as I suspect today’s teens might find it less foreign than the other adaptations I’ve mentioned; plus, it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on the script’s deviations. It’s not a very good movie, but it doesn’t totally suck. No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve.