Most movie reviews would include a synopsis of the plot and some highlights of the story. But this is Romeo and Juliet, arguably Shakespeare’s best-known work and one that has been the subject of a couple of dozen movies over the years. It’s a story that nearly everyone is familiar with: boy meets girl from a rival family, they fall in love, their parents object and the couple decides the only way they can be together is in death.
And the familiarity of the subject matter makes any new movie based on Romeo and Juliet a very tough sell to audiences. As a writer and / or director, can you come up with a novel take on the tale that seems fresh, but doesn’t veer too far from the story everyone loves?
The newest adaptation of a Romeo and Juliet film is provided by Julian Fellowes, perhaps best known for his work on “Downton Abbey.” He makes a gallant effort to shake things up a bit, but the result is a movie that somehow manages to make a classic story of love seem slight and unimportant.
The first decision when making the story is deciding whether or not to stick with the original language from Shakespeare’s era. Fellowes opts for a slightly-updated version of the Bard’s original dialogue, and unfortunately, the changes manage to take the beauty out of the words without making it all that much easier to understand.
The other fatal flaw in this production is the casting of the lead couple. Any version of Romeo and Juliet lives and dies by the casting of those key roles and in this case, the leads are just … okay. Douglas Booth is competent as Romeo, though if anything he’s as beautiful as Juliet. And ah, Juliet. Hailee Steinfeld is stunning and it’s easy to see why someone would fall for her. But her reading of the words is lifeless and devoid of emotion. And she seems to have little or no chemistry with Booth, which makes the obsessive nature of the couple’s romance a lot more difficult to believe.
The only real highpoint in the production comes from a trio of veteran actors, all of which tackle their roles with talent and gusto. Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet and Stellan Skarsgard as The Prince of Verona all manage to impart their roles with the presence and passion required in any Shakespeare production. The scenes they are in are literally the only ones worth watching, which is not a big selling point for the movie.
There are plenty of other versions of Romeo and Juliet worth watching, including the iconic version with Olivia Hussey. But it’s difficult to come up with a reason to watch this updated version, which seeks to be different yet manages only to suck the life out of a classic love story. It’s too bad, but this is Romeo and Juliet, so there’s likely to be another new version hitting movie screens in a couple of years.
However, as all of us have different taste, perhaps this version is worth checking out, as each rendition certainly has its ups and downs.
Romeo & Juliet is rated PG-13 for some violence.