– Summary –
Director : Carlo Carlei
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Damien Lewis, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ed Westwick, Paul Giamatti, Stellan Skarsgard, Lesley Manville, Natasha McElhone.
Approx Running Time : 118 Minutes
Synopsis: The famous love story of Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare’s play.
What we think : Fabulously gorgeous, stunning mounted (and that’s just the guy playing Romeo!) and filled to the brim with a cast that, on paper, should work wonders, this update of Romeo & Juliet is anything but passionate, or even contemplative. Cherry picking the best of the Bard’s words and shoveling in several of your own doesn’t make this film “modern” or “contemporary”, it just makes it shit. Either make it with Shakespeare’s words, or don’t. Just don’t go half-assed on it. In trying to capture the Twilight-teen market, this film utterly misses the mark, and is as sexy and consuming as anal warts.
What light through yonder window smashes?
Poor William Shakespeare. The dude’s been dead for what, several hundred years or more, and we’re still trying to get his stuff right. One wonders what the Bard might make of the preponderance of remakes, remakes and more remakes of his stories – most notably, the inexplicably popular Romeo & Juliet, a film which has had more versions made than just about any other of his plays, possibly excepting Hamlet. One might suspect he’d find the fact that his poetic language and tragic characters are still popular even today something of an ego-boost, although were he to realize that not every attempt to make his stories for the general public are even really very good, it might temper that excitement. Romeo & Juliet, probably Shakespeare’s most recognized creation (if not the most enduring), has been attempted more times than I care to think about; for some reason, the thought of two suicidal teenagers who crack the sads because they can’t get what they want, who have an impossible love for each other and would die for each other, somehow still resonates with audiences even to this day. Actually, that sounds reasonable for teenagers, now that I think about it. Ahem. The 2013 attempt at bringing this famous story to life is a brave one, one filled with glimpses of what might have been, and were it not for the script by Oscar winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey, Vanity Fair, The Tourist) it might have had a chance.
Director Carlo Carlei had every chance in the world to pull together a great rendition of this story. The film’s production values are high, its cast is (with two notable exceptions) really good, and you’ve got an Oscar-winning writer handling the words on the page. Yep, everything would have been shaping up perfectly as it came time to film the thing. Then it all went wrong. The script tried to be Shakespeare without being Shakespeare (except in parts), the two leads have almost zero chemistry, and whatever the hell that was with Abel Korzenioski and his “score” sounded more like Ye Olde Timey Elevator Musak. Competent direction aside (and Carlei has an eye for framing and detail, but can only work so much magic) the film’s problems stem from its inevitable focus on trying to capture the tween-girl market, at whom the casting is undoubtedly aimed.
Douglas Booth, cast as Romeo, is a problem in that he just looks too beautiful. My God, those lips, eyes and hair are just to die for, aren’t they girls? Booth’s cheekbones alone could provide anthropologists of future generations some real headaches, I suspect. He’s just gorgeous, and distractingly so. And I’m as heterosexual as they come. God, he smoulders! Er, anyway, his casting is so obviously designed to draw in the young girls who will swoon over a man willing to die for his true love, and I guess he performs well with the material given to him, but for all his catwalk model looks and debonair screen presence, he has no on-screen chemistry whatsoever with the one person in the film with whom he needs to: Juliet. Hailee Steinfeld, most recently appearing on our screens in Ender’s Game (and who was nominated for an Oscar for her work in True Grit) makes for a sweet Juliet, and certainly acts the pants off everyone around her, but her passionless, perfunctory relationship with Booth leaves the film stranded in mediocrity. Watching them kiss is like visualizing parental coitus – it’s not something everyone wants to see, and it’s certainly not good to watch on the screen.
With the two leads having the spark of romance sputter and die before they even get together, the rest of the cast must do their utmost to support what little life is left in the tale – typically, the elder statesmen of the show hold their own; Paul Giamatti, as the Priest who marries the two lovers, and Lesley Manville, as Juliet’s nursemaid, are terrific in their roles (and are the only two people who can hold their heads high in this entire debacle!), while scenery-chewing is left to Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis (as Lord Capulet), and a furiously bullish Ed Westwick, as Tybalt. Small roles to Kodi Smit-McPhee, as Benvolio (he does well, given his age, in essaying the feeling of Shakespeare, if not the words) and Christian Cooke, as Mercutio, provide the canvas on which this tragic tale unfolds. Nobody in the secondary cast is particularly bad, per se, it’s just that the film and script aren’t strong enough to bring out their best.
Now, I’m not one to criticize creative artists when they try something new with a work that has been done to death (and let’s face it, most of us are sick and tired of ol’ Shakey being updated every three or four years), because at least they’re trying, but something about this version of Romeo & Juliet doesn’t sit right with me. The screenplay casts aside much of Shakespeare’s dialogue, keeping the most famous stuff (the balcony scene and a few others, most of which exist purely as sense memory for this long-distant literary dunce) but working in plenty of Almost Shakespeare-ian language wherever they feel like it. It’s like they wanted to make a Shakespeare story without the Shakespeare that nobody knows. Carlo Carlei’s Romeo & Juliet is a cumbersomely anemic affair, devoid of raw emotional energy and fixated on being a sort-of action film for literary types – watch the street-fight between Tybalt and Mercutio and Romeo, which is filmed like some Elizabethan Western, complete with slow-motion dust and The Wild Bunch homage of having Tybalt and Co walking towards the camera. If you’re going to set the film in period-era Italy, with all the right costumes and technology and behavior, why would you throw out the very thing that sets the film as such? The modernization of the language contradicts the realism of the setting! Why? For naught!
On the positive side of the ledger, at least the film looks great. Filmed in real-life Verona, and a few other Italian locations, the movie has a legitimately authentic air about its tone and place, and it’s such as shame to see such effort wasted on such a half-cocked version of the classic story. The dusty buildings, glamorous habitations of the wealthy, and moist, dank alleyways of period Italian design are evocative, if not entirely apropos to the story. But for all the great lighting, terrific cinematography (indeed the cinematography is probably the best thing about this film) and great casting choices, the film stumbles badly and, more often, falls flat on its face. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the score by Abel Korzeniowski, which plays over the proceedings with the subtlety of a root-canal. The legendary balcony scene is utterly ruined by what appears to be incidental music for a theatrical intermission playing at near-full volume over the scene, and it obliterates any emotional range the actors are able to muster (which isn’t much anyway, but you get that). Most of the score, which alternates between Elizabethan realism and modern orchestral thunderclap, is thematically immature and contextually inappropriate.
As a fan of Bazz Lurhman, I’m pleased that his version remains the most successfully approachable of the modern takes (Joss Whedon’s version I have yet to see), and while Douglas Booth is no Leonardo DiCaprio, or Hailee Steinfeld as effortlessly ingenue-ish as Claire Danes (seriously, I crushed badly on Danes when Romeo + Juliet came out back in the mid-90’s), the film’s problems run a lot deeper than just the two leads having issues with the material. Romeo & Juliet is a failure of creative decision making, rooted in the desire to update the language for the tween-audiences at the expense of the story, and changing some of the key scenes to suit what… a modern sensibility? Court controversy?
I’m not sure, but whatever the reason for tinkering so blindly with one of the greatest literary stories ever written, it leads to utter ruin on the altar of lamented opportunity. 2013’s Romeo & Juliet is forgettably indifferent to the source, offers little passion for its character, or respect for the audience, and fails almost entirely in conveying the tragedy and intensity of the Bard’s play. If I was a teenage girl, or utterly unfamiliar with Shakespeare at all, I might have enjoyed it, but I’m not, and I am, so I didn’t. You probably won’t either.