The filmmakers behind this most recent film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet have made a truly baffling and even somewhat offensive decision that, as a Shakespeare nerd, I simply cannot forgive. Julian Fellowes, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park, and the creator of the hit show “Downton Abbey,” has elected to take the well-worn teen love/tragedy – which every single English-speaking student over the age of 12 is likely intimately familiar with – and alter it.
Most adapters of Shakespeare often – and sometimes wisely – excise large swaths of the original Folio in order to keep the story moving; yes even Shakespeare had the occasional vestigial plotline. These economical snips I can deal with, and, were I bold enough to adapt Shakespeare myself, I would likely also have to begin slashing; no audience could possibly sit through a five-hour film version of, say, “King Lear.”
But Fellowes did not just slash and burn through “Romeo & Juliet,” he added lines of his own dialogue to original text, in Shakespearean style. In his version of things, the two households both alike in dignity have been united for a great gaming day. The fair Rosaline, previously only spoken of, now has lines of dialogue of her own, and indeed has a potential romance with Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Tybalt has been expanded into a scowling bully who lays down decidedly non-Shakespearean threats, and Lord Capulet (Damian Lewis) delivers line after line of brand new emotional exposition, clarifying exactly what's at stake for Juliet in true Screenwriting 101 fashion.
All of these alterations would be acceptable, were the production a bit more visually daring, or transposed to a more modern time; had they set their Romeo & Juliet in, say, a parallel universe version of Venice Beach the way Baz Luhrmann did with his grating, hyperactive MTV version of the play back in 1996, then perhaps the simplified storytelling may have played. But this production is visually authentic and sumptuous in every regard. In all aspects but the script, Romeo & Juliet is impeccable. Director Carlo Careli filmed in Verona, Italy, and the old-world architecture call to mind the complex and gorgeous artistic explosion of the Renaissance. The costuming and photography are truly gorgeous, and every frame looks like a muted Vermeer.
Even the casting is visually perfect. As Romeo, Douglas Booth is a handsome and wispy presence, looking less like a real-life lovelorn teen, and more like the Abercrombie & Fitch version of your imaginary high school boyfriend. My oh my, is he ever handsome. In his tight doublet, bun-hugging trousers, and froopy windswept hair, Booth looks like the lost RenFaire member of One Direction. Juliet is played by the dark-haired and twinkle-eyed Hailee Steinfeld, who may look the right age, and who may be the only actress in the piece who tries to lend any sort of naturalness to her performance, but who seems to deliver her lines in a somewhat perfunctory manner. Paul Giamatti is ideally cast as Friar Lawrence (in this version, Father Lawrence), and his chemistry with Juliet's Nurse, the flustering and energetic Lesley Manville, was so palpable and strong, that I wish the filmmakers had decided to make an age-reversed production of the play instead, wherein Giamatti and Manville played the star-crossed lovers.
But all this visual verisimilitude, hot young actors, and gorgeous photography are in service of an altered text that lends no additional tragic oomph to an already classical story. What Fellowes has done is focus on the bare-bones story of “Romeo & Juliet” and not its poetry. What previously took its power from graceful and sprightly quatrains and couplets, stressing a grand and bold operatic emotional state, now spells things out for the audience in terms of plot beats. Motivations are made thuddingly clear, and emotions are explained. As a result, the romance is reduced to a perfunctory reiteration, and the tragedy has no teeth. Did the filmmakers have no faith that their audience could understand or jibe with the words of The Bard? Did they have to make the world's first No Fear Shakespeare movie?
To be fair, if any play can stand drastic alteration, it's “Romeo & Juliet.” This is a play that every high schooler in the world has read, analyzed, memorized, and grown tired of. A fresh take on the material is acceptable and may even be warranted. Indeed, the story is always being retold on film, from a Jet Li action film, to bonkers animated versions with either talking seals or living lawn gnomes in the lead roles. But how sad it is when an Academy Award-winning screenwriter and an Italian director, armed with ambition, a decent cast, and a huge budget, can team up to birth something so visually authentic, and yet so cloyingly patronizing?
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.