Romeo & Juliet
by Michael Walters
The Cantankerous Critic
What does this adaptation of “Romeo & Juliet” have to set it apart from the countless others that have come before it? The answer is young Hailee Steinfeld. She doesn’t just play the part of doomed lover Juliet, she inhabits it.
The bard’s words cease to be lines being recited by an actor in fancy dress from another time and place. She makes them come alive, and we feel like we are watching the barest emotions being poured out before the world, in the most beautiful and heart-wrenching way possible.
The problem is, with the exception of the always dependable Paul Giamatti, the rest of the cast doesn’t fare quite as well.
Newcomer Douglas Booth has the certifiably dreamy looks to make the teen audience swoon for his Romeo, but he’s a perfume ad in search of a personality. He has the blank stare of an actor trying to get through a recital of words he doesn’t fully understand.
Shakespeare scholars and the English teachers bound to show this film in their classrooms at some future date might quibble with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows’ script as well. While the dialogue sounds suitably Shakespearean, in most cases these are not the exact words as the bard wrote them. Lines have been reconstructed, simplified, or invented; with Fellows sticking to the plot and little else. (Even the plot has undergone some revisions that might have some Shakespeare fans protesting.).
I enjoy Shakespeare, but I wouldn’t say I’m a purist by any means. In terms of education, this tampering with perfection might be, to some, tantamount to betrayal; a lobotomized copy dumbed down for modern audiences and passing itself off as an original.
But in terms of cinema, I didn’t find that the new dialogue hurt the story. The film is suitably lush, and director Carlo Carlei makes good use of the Italian locations. It’s not quite the thunderbolt that Baz Luhrman’s electric 1996 adaptation was, but in some ways Steinfeld has accomplished something even harder. She’s made her dialogue live and breathe, without the benefit of a modern setting for modern audiences to grab on to.