Director: Carlo Carlei
Screenwriter: Julian Fellows
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ed Westwick, Tomas Arana, Laura Morante, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard
Running time: 118 minutes
A retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, the forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet of warring houses Montague and Capulet.
My first thought upon learning of this latest version of the world’s most famous play was, is this really necessary? I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with Romeo & Juliet, but do we really need another version right now? Why not delve into Shakespeare’s catalogue and adapt something a little different, something we haven’t seen so often. Adapting a play that the general public doesn’t know quite so well would make it easier to be exciting or unpredictable, and really, that’s where Carlo Carlei’s version runs into its first and ultimately untippable hurdle: there’s no ambition.
The whole thing feels very staged. Every word, every smile, every movement. Of course, the play itself isn’t exactly cinematic, but I feel if you’re going to adapt it into a film you have to at least try to bring something new to the table. The only adaptation that’s gone on here is that instead of writing ‘Curtain Up’ they wrote ‘Fade In’. That severe lack of ambition to even attempt a meaningful transition from stage to screen means we’re watching these actors cite Shakespeare as if they’re running around on stage, but Carlei blatantly wants to get in close and catch the emotions. In this strange situation, where the director and actors are trying to make two different films, the audience is left in some kind of artistic purgatory with no emotional direction.
Often, because of this, I found myself completely zoning out during long soliloquies or romantic back-and-forths. There’s nothing wrong with the dialogue as it’s just lifted straight from Shakespeare’s page, and Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellows is a strong writer, but it’s the delivery of the dialogue that brings the problems. It’s all so unconvincing. You get the feeling that much of the time they don’t actually know (or care) what they’re saying, and they’re just remembering and citing long lines. At no point do we really believe in their words. Importantly, it’s not bad acting, it’s just that, again, it feels like the script has been written for the stage, which requires a whole different kind of acting.
Yet, for all of these problems, the third act picks up significantly. Whether it’s a case of the film finally finding its feet after 80 minutes or simply me settling in, we begin to be affected by it emotionally as the tragic climax looms. The final few scenes are handled really nicely, and despite everybody knowing the outcome there are still a few excruciating moments of vain, heart-pumping hope. Furthermore, the film looks beautiful thanks to David Tattersall’s amorous and melancholic cinematography, which wonderfully mirrors the materialization of Romeo and Juliet’s doomed love.
Relative newcomer Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld (who impressed the pants off me in the Coens’ True Grit) make for suitable titular lovers, but Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti stand out, both seemingly having a lot of fun. There’s a fantastic cast in general, but unfortunately it’s not enough to transform the film into something more memorable.
Shakespeare’s romanticizing storytelling will always hold a certain charm, and while there is something ultimately likeable about this film, its lack of ambition and eagerness to just play it straight and go through the motions to get to that tragic climax leaves a lot to be desired.