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ROMEO & JULIET Movie Review

William Shakespeare may have written 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two narrative poems, and other scattered verses, but Romeo & Juliet, a romantic tragedy he wrote sometime between 1591 and 1595, remains among his most popular and most performed plays. Reading Romeo & Juliet is practically a rite of passage for American and presumably British high school students. Readings of Romeo & Juliet often conclude with a viewing of any one of the seemingly countless film and TV adaptations, with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation among the most shown (and seen). Modern adaptations range from Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins’ late-1950s, New York City-set West Side Story to Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann’s 1995 sleekly modernized take with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. With so many adaptations to choose from, there’s little to no reason for yet another faithful adaptation, but Downton Abbey creator/Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes and his producers felt otherwise. They shouldn’t have.

With little-known TV director Carlo Carlei taking the directing chair, presumably because Romeo & Juliet’s producers decided to follow the 1968 adaptation and shoot in the Italian locations mentioned in the text – regardless of whatever feelings of déjà vu that decision will engender in moviegoers – Romeo & Juliet opens with at a Renaissance Faire (except it’s not really a Renaissance Faire, just a period-specific one) and an unfriendly jousting match between the champions of House Capulet and House Montague, two of Verona’s leading families. Longtime blood enemies, the Capulets and Montagues seemingly fight on sight, needing only the slightest provocation to take up their swords and duel to the death, a recurring problem for Verona’s leader, Prince of Verona (Stellan Skarsgård). The Prince orders them to stop dueling upon pain of death (or worse), but that does little to assuage the enmity between the two families.

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Romeo (Douglas Booth), the first-born son of Lord Montague (Tomas Arana), is nowhere near the Faire. Artistic by temperament, he prefers to draw and sculpt. He’s also pining away for a seemingly unobtainable young woman, Rosaline (Nathalie Rapti Gomez). Learning of her presence at a masked ball held at the Capulet estate, Romeo and his two best friends, Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Mercutio (Christian Cooke), sneak in, hiding in plain sight. Romeo’s amorous, not to mention fickle, attentions slip away from Rosalind to Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), the only daughter (and only child) of Lord (Damian Lewis) and Lady Capulet (Natascha McElhone). Regardless of Juliet’s desires or intentions, Lord Capulet’s plans for her include an arranged marriage with Count Paris (Tom Wisdom). Of course, Capulet’s plan goes completely sideways the moment Romeo and Juliet lock eyes across a ballroom.

In the span of minutes, Romeo and Juliet segue from exchanging verbal wordplay to planning their marriage. They’re teenagers, after all; hormonally driven, rebellious teenagers. Luckily for Romeo (luck being short-term, not long-term for him), his confessor and father figure (a literal father of the Catholic/Christian kind), Friar Laurence (Paul Giamatti), rushes to Romeo’s aid, setting up and officiating at the unsanctioned wedding between Romeo and Juliet. Friar Laurence seems motivated by a not-quite healthy belief in romantic love. Without him, Romeo and Juliet would have to find another way to have their wedding and with it, their relationship, sanctioned by the Church or almost as importantly given the setting and time period, the patriarchal order (i.e., Juliet’s father). As with the play, the adaptation never leaves in doubt that the consummation of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship occurs post-marriage.

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As tightly paced as anything in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Romeo & Juliet moves at breakneck pace from complication to complication, each one making the title characters’ future bleaker and darker. Ultimately they have no future at all, except as symbols of ill-fated romantic love. Before we get to the end of Romeo and Juliet’s story, however, the way between the Capulets and the Montagues once again flares up, pitting Mercutio (Christian Cooke) against Tybalt (Ed Westwick), Juliet’s hot-tempered, Montague-hating cousin, and later, to even more tragic results, Tybalt and Romeo, resulting in Romeo’s lifetime banishment to Mantua, a seemingly permanent separation between the two young lovers, one more intervention by the well-meaning Friar Laurence, and the tragic conclusion familiar to every high schooler (and anyone who’s been through high school) in practically every English-speaking country.

That familiarity proves to be an insurmountable obstacle for Carlei and Fellowes. While Carlei attempts, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to give Romeo & Juliet a cinematic dimension by relying on wide shots and camera movement, Romeo & Juliet is still first and foremost a dialogue-driven play, dependent on actors to bring Shakespeare’s centuries-old words to life or at least sound superficially convincing when they read their lines and pretend to be overcome with lust in each other’s presence. It’s something of a minor miracle that Steinfeld, Oscar nominated for her career-making performance in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel, True Grit, and Booth don’t embarrass themselves. It’s even more impressive given that Steinfeld was only 15 when she began filming Romeo & Juliet last spring.

Thanks to location shooting, cinematography, production design, and costumes, Romeo & Juliet is never less than lush, making it a visual pleasure if nothing else. Channeling his inner Michael Nyman, Abel Korzeniowski’s score is just as lush, filled with distinctive aural variety and emotional cues to almost (“almost” being the operative word here) make moviegoers forget that they’re watching an unimaginative, uninventive take on a overly familiar play that either deserves better or not to be adapted again for the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.