William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the most-filmed play of all time, with dozens of versions and variations from the sublime (the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann versions, “West Side Story” and “Shakespeare in Love”) to the outlandish (the cute Gnomeo and Juliet, the robot short “Runaway Robots! Romie-O and Julie-8”) and the downright ridiculous (Norma Scherer and Leslie Howard were in twice the age of the characters they were playing). The story of the “star-cross’d lovers” has immediate appeal — impetuous teenagers, disapproving parents, missed messages, and swordfights. All it needs to succeed is leads with a lot of chemistry and the ability to adapt to the rhythms of iambic pentameter and the glorious language of the greatest writer in the history of English. This movie fails on all three. The leads have no chemistry with each other or with the glorious poetry of the dialog. And “Downton Abbey’s” Julian Fellowes has mangled the adaptation, changing some of the lines and scenes. It is not a terrible movie, but it is not an especially good one and with so many better alternatives it is an unnecessary one.
It begins with a useless added scene in which the Prince (Stellan Skarsgård) holds a tournament to settle once and for all the dispute between the feuding Montagues and Capulets. It doesn’t work. Soon a fight breaks out between the servants of the two houses that are “alike in dignity” (the play’s first scene) and the Prince is furious. If they cannot keep the peace, there will be trouble. Romeo (Douglas Booth), a Montague, is in love with a Capulet cousin named Rosaline. When he finds out that the Capulets are having a masked party and Rosaline will be there, he and his friends attend the party so Romeo can see her.
But Romeo sees the Capulet daughter, Juliet (“True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld), and they are instantly struck by love. In the play, their perfect unity is demonstrated by their first conversation, witty flirtation in the form of an exquisite sonnet. It is one of the best-loved pieces of writing in history. Yet this version mangles it by ramping up the intensity of the attraction right from the beginning so there is no sense of build-up. More important, the utter lack of chemistry between the very pretty but bland Booth and the game but not up to the task Steinfeld makes us long for Bella and Edward or even Bella and Jacob.
There are some strong performances, unfortunately just making the two main characters look worse by comparison. Lesley Manville (“Topsy Turvy”) give the nurse a warmth that is often lost in the usual caricatured portrayals. Natascha McElhone is a sympathetic Lady Capulet and Paul Giamatti is superb as Friar Laurence. The standout, though, is Christian Cooke as Mercurtio, whose energy is much missed once he is out of the picture.
Most appallingly, Fellowes has decided to make the text more “accessible” with some trims and edits to the language. The slight gains in “accessibility” are overwhelmed by the loss of the music in the words and the poetry of the rhythm. I bite my thumb at him.
Parents should know that this movie includes Shakespearean sword-fighting with many characters injured and killed, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and suicides.
Family discussion: Did the novice make the right decision? Why couldn’t Romeo and Juliet tell their parents the truth?
If you like this, try: the other versions by Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli and adaptations like “West Side Story” and “Warm Bodies,” a zombie romance where the characters are named R and Julie)