Just because high school thespians and community theater groups tackle Shakespeare doesn’t mean bringing the Bard to the big screen is a no-brainer. Aside from the fans, who will approach a new version with a mix of fear and lofty expectations, everyone will be asking the same nagging question: What makes yet another version worth the screen time? The answer might be one of two options. The film offers either something new or something better than its predecessors.
For the most part, the latest version of “Romeo and Juliet” fails on both counts. If there is one novelty in director Carlo Carlei’s take on the world’s best-known ill-fated lovers, it’s that the words aren’t entirely Shakespeare’s. It’s a fresh approach, indeed, but maybe not the wisest.
“Wherefore art thou Romeo?” remains, as do the play’s other most famous lines, but screenwriter Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” has dumbed down much of the remaining dialogue. Does that mean it will appeal to a broader audience? It’s possible — cursing “zounds” is so 1597, after all — but replacing existing text with old adages about the road to hell being paved with good intentions or striking while the iron is hot comes across as lazy. Besides, Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” earlier this year proved that Shakespeare’s words don’t have to hinder enjoyment, much less comprehension.
When it comes to sets and costumes, this take might barely edge out its two most noteworthy predecessors, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version and the 1996 incarnation from Baz Luhrmann. The setting of Verona is luxe, filled with opulent estates, colorful frescoes and exquisite scenery. But none of that can make up for the fact that Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld aren’t remotely believable as the fervidly enamored Romeo and Juliet.
As far as looking the part, Steinfeld holds her own, although in Shakespeare’s time, Booth would have made a stunning Juliet, with his delicate features and pillowy lips. Unfortunately, neither one has mastered the art of delivering Shakespearean (or Shakespearean-like) dialogue while also emoting. Steinfeld powers through her lines so rapidly, she doesn’t appear to hear what she’s saying. And Booth, at least better at enunciation, can’t muster a passionate facial expression, much less a fiery inflection. The sentimental, soaring music seems determined to compensate for the lead actors’ shortcomings.
The supporting actors are much more memorable. Paul Giamatti is dependable as ever as Friar Laurence, while Damian Lewis nails the more outrageous characteristics of Lord Capulet.
At its best, an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” can be so captivating that an audience might believe for a moment, out of sheer hope, that the tragic ending can be thwarted. This version never becomes so transporting. The movie is just a series of familiar scenes unfurling toward an inevitable conclusion.
(118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.