Thursday, October 10, 2013
Movie Review: Romeo and Juliet
In my humble opinion – you know, that of a published and award-winning semi-professional film critic – Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet is a modern classic and the definitive adaption of the Bard's most famous tragedy. Its hyper-kinetic energy, a controlled chaos of sights and sounds, juxtaposing a modern setting with Shakespeare's original text makes for an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.
But even when setting aside my Luhrmann fanboyism, I'm just not sure the world is clamoring for a new take on the star-crossed lovers from Verona, especially one as decidedly non-Hollywood as this latest adaptation written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and helmed by Italian director Carlo Carlei.
R&J is one of the most widely-familiar tales in Western civilization, so I won't spend a lot of time on synopsis. Two warring houses, the Montagues and Capulets, are engaged in a bitter and drawn-out feud that escalates at precisely the moment that the houses' two heirs, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, meet and fall in love. They marry in secret, with the help of Juliet's nurse and a trusted priest, but cruel fate continues to obstruct their plans for happiness.
This latest Romeo and Juliet is a bit of a hodgepodge. The set pieces and period detail are stunning, but the watered-down prose is overly casual at times and the acting comes off as heavy-handed melodrama. The casting of Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis was inspired, but other choices like Natascha McElhone as Lady Capulet are nonsensical and Douglass Booth (Romeo) is essentially an Abercrombie model whose cherubic poise robs the otherwise brilliant Hailee Steinfeld (Juliet) of convincing chemistry. The understated direction sets the film nicely apart from the bombastic Baz Luhrman version, but also cripples the scenes of aggression between the rival families, deflating any sense of heft and tension.
Carlei also relies too heavily on certain visual motifs that are at best pointless and at worst laughable. If you took a shot every time Romeo gently caresses Juliet's cheek with his hand you would need a taxi to take you home from the theater. And both lead characters are introduced with cloudy, ethereal lingering shots plucked out of a Hallmark home video. We're supposed to believe the passion between these two characters is strong enough to choose death over separation, but what we get is the milquetoast romance of a Taylor Swift music video.
But there is a familiarity and sentimentality to the tragic tale of young love, which is dealt with reverently by Fellowes and Carlei. Even in its weaker moments, Romeo and Juliet is respectful to its source material and not enough can be said about the beautiful settings that Carlei has chosen to stage his tale, although its telling when the most memorable thing about a movie is the lifeless background that distracts you from the actors doing their best to recite choppy bits of iambic pentameter.
Steinfeld, the breakout star of True Grit, once again suggests a rising star even if she's not perfectly matched with the miscast ensemble or her romantic counterpart, whose biggest credit to date is 2012's LOL starring Miley Cyrus (don't remember that one? That's ok, no one does.).
Ultimately, Romeo and Juliet is visually impressive while dramatically underwhelming, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses.
*Romeo and Juliet opens nationwide on Friday, Oct. 11.