It’s all pouting lips and swelling orchestral strings in Carlo Carlei’s 2013 filmic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Boasting an adapted screenplay by Downton Abbey-creator Julian Fellowes and the likes of Paul Giamatti, Stellan Skarsgård and Damian Lewis among the players, my expectations for this adaptation were high—perhaps too much so. But I do so like Romeo and Juliet. I know some people hate it. In fact, I’d wager the majority of folks I associate with are lukewarm on it at best, especially amongst my theatre friends. But I eat it up, love at first sight and all.
In my reading of the play, the success of a particular production of Romeo and Juliet hinges not on the chemistry between the titular leads (played capably if poutily by Douglas Booth (2011’s Christopher and His Kind) and True Grit’s (2011) Hailee Steinfeld for the record)) or the quality of the sword-fighting. It’s all about Mercutio! Sure, Booth and Steinfeld play their parts well and Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis shine above all others in their portrayals of Friar Laurence and Lord Capulet, but that doesn’t mean a thing if (SPOILERS!!) Mercutio’s death falls flat. While Christian Cooke (who you better have seen in 2010’s Cemetery Junction) makes for a more-than-passable Mercutio, he just isn’t given the time to develop the rapport with Romeo that’s necessary for us to buy Romeo’s murder of Tybalt. Without that, the climactic tragedy simply feels emotionally forced.
Now, maybe your appraisal of the story’s emotional trajectory differs my own, but the film’s take still suffers in other ways. Foremost among them is the alterations made to the Shakespearian dialogue by Fellowes. These alterations my make the content of certain interactions more transparent, but they also strip the language of its poetry. For example, Juliet’s “I’ll look to like, if looking liking,” becomes something like, “I’ll look to see if I can like him, if that’s what my parents want.” Call me an old bore if you must, but to my mind there was nothing in that dialogue needing changing. Abridgement for the sake of the film’s running time, sure, but don’t mess with Shakespeare’s language, man. It may be obtuse and overly wordy at times, but it WAS written in modern English and it’s so damn pretty to boot.
Still, the film is beautiful to behold, Giamatti and Lewis are seriously wonderful, and the clarified language may make the film more accessible to younger viewers. So it’s not without its appeal to be sure. It deserves a watch at least. And Romeo and Juliet is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and comes packed with behind-the-scenes featurettes.