By Dan Metcalf, Jr.
Clipper Film Correspondent
Romeo and Juliet (Relativity Media)
Rated PG-13 Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ed Westwick, Tom Wisdom, Paul Giamatti, Tomas Arana, Laura Morante, Christian Cooke, Stellan Skarsgård.
Written by Julian Fellowes, based on the play by Wiliam Shakespeare.
Directed by Carlo Carlei.
Some people can't help themselves, and feel the need to improve that which is already pretty good. The same can be said of those who think Shakespeare needs a little (or a lot of) touching up, which is why we get updated versions of the Bard's most classic work. The temptation to alter Bill's stories and words is probably what led us to the latest version of Romeo and Juliet, starring Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth in the title roles.
First of all, just about everybody knows the story of the “star-crossed lovers” from fueding Verona families, the Capulets (Damian Lewis and Natascha McElhone) and Montagues (Tomas Arana and Laura Morante). They meet at a party, fall in love, have a balcony scene, conspire with a priest (Paul Giamatti) to have secret wedding, etc. Along the way, Romeo's cousin Mercutio is killed by Juliet's cousin Thybalt, leading Romeo to avenge his family, killing Thybalt. The fracas causes Verona's Prince (Stellan Skarsgård) to ban Romeo from the city, causing Juliet much sadness. In the meantime, Juliet's parents force her to marry Count Paris (Tom Wisdom) the next day, which prompts Juliet to conspire again with the priest to swallow a drug that will put her into a temporary coma and fool her family into thinking she's dead, while the priest sends for Romeo to come get her and escape together after she wakes up.
We all know the plan backfires, leaving our star-crossed lovers with tragic consequences.
Romeo and Juliet (the movie) is a vexing adaptation of one of Shakespeare's cornerstone classics.
Where do I start?
First, the casting of Steinfeld. The 16-year-old had a breakaway performance in 2011's brilliant True Grit, playing a confident, smart, resourceful, wisecracking teenager. She's cute and obviously talented – but she's not Juliet, and often appears to struggle with Shakespeare's verse and the complexities of love and loss. The same could be said of Douglas Booth as Romeo, but he at least holds a British accent together most of the time (Steinfeld doesn't). I have nothing against the attractive Steinfeld, but it doesn't help when your male lead has more feminine beauty than your female lead.
Second, there's the script, which takes a few liberties with the original story and ends up a little more conversational than one would expect from a work of Shakespeare.
Third, there's the annoying, sappy (and constant) soundtrack mixed with piano and string orchestra that seems suited for a parody of a perfume commercial from Saturday Night Live (it's not even good enough for an actual perfume commercial). It reminded me of the violin and piano music that plays during Ralphie's fantasy about going blind to spite his parents in A Christmas Story.
Fourth (I could go on, but time and space constrict me), there's the direction of Italian Carlo Carlei, whose previous claim to fame was 1995 dog movie Fluke, which is perhaps a fair description of how he got the job. There are many not-so-subtle and presumptuous moments in the film where you are forced to marvel at the beauty of Romeo or Juliet, as they gaze wistfully into the camera (hello, perfume commercial). It seems Carlei was trying to create pictures to match the silly music...and succeeded.
The only saving grace for Romeo and Juliet is the performance of Giamatti, but his contribution can't save this stinker from a tragic death.