One of the key elements of Shakespeare’s plays is that no matter how many times you see an adaptation of one of his works, you can derive something new from it. That’s certainly true of Carlo Carlei’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Given that the tale has been recreated countless times, the idea of a straightforward adaptation is refreshing. The story, like many of Shakespeare’s works, has been done to death, but his vivid language is seldom short of breathtaking and thus, never tiring.
There’s also a lovely score by Abel Korzeniowski, stunning costumes by Carlo Poggioli, and production designer Tonino Zera’s utilization of the still breathtaking sites of Verona and Mantua (where some of the project was shot). Unfortunately, there’s also a lot to be desired.
The film can’t compete with Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful 1968 interpretation or Baz Luhrmann’s imaginative 1996 retelling–an adaptation that offered a fresh and satisfying take on the classic romance.
The script by Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellows condenses so much of the play’s initial sequences that it’s hard to take in what’s happening. After wince-inducing slow motion shots of Juliet (Oscar nominated True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld) and, moments later, Romeo (Douglas Booth) introduce us to the characters, we are quickly swept up in their doomed love affair before we have a chance to catch our breath.
Steinfeld’s tender age (she was 15 when the film was shot) is perhaps the main thing that hinders her performance. She plays the role so sweetly that it’s difficult to buy her as the rebellious type. Furthermore, she doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp of the weight-filled verses she’s reciting. Booth says his lines with much more potency and though he’s hard to take seriously at first (he’s initially shown wearing a ridiculously low cut shirt) his performance picks up steam.
Kodi Smit-McPhee, best known for his eerily heartbreaking turn in the horror film Let Me In, offers a scene-stealing portrayal of Romeo’s cousin Benvolio that is both heartbreaking and reserved. Lesley Manville, who brings considerable depth to the role of Juliet’s nurse, is also a highlight.
What’s surprising is that Mercutio (Christian Cooke), one of the story’s most loved characters, is granted so little screen time. By contrast, Tybalt (Ed Westwick) is given far too much. His one note rendition of Juliet’s villainous cousin prompts a few unintended chuckles. This isn’t necessarily Westwick’s fault but rather the way in which some of his scenes are staged–particularly one that intercuts his angry sword welding with a blissful exchange between the two leads.
Damian Lewis, known for his portrayal of marine turned conflicted terrorist on Homeland, puts his extensive Shakespearian background to use as Lord Capulet. From the first line he speaks about Juliet, his “only living child,” we are given a clear understanding of his love for her–making her demise all the more effecting. Later he nails a flirtatious and comical exchange with Lady Capulet (Natascha McElhone) that offers a refreshing (though brief) break in the too swift screenplay.
But it’s Paul Giamatti’s moving take on Friar Lawrence that really steals the show. He speaks every line in a way that allows the audience to deeply comprehend each word and impressively balances serving as the film’s comic relief as well as its moral center. Giamatti and Lewis make the story more about how the tragic circumstances affect those left behind rather than the star-crossed lovers themselves.
Overall, the film’s major failing is its poor illustration of the deadly conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues, which severely lowers the stakes of what is supposed to be a “forbidden” romance. This is largely because we rarely see Romeo’s parents (Tomas Arana and Laura Morante). When all is said and done, you’re left with little understanding of why Romeo and Juliet were so determined to end their lives, and for this particular story, that’s certainly not a good thing.