Romeo & Juliet

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Laura Clifford 
Romeo & Juliet

Robin Clifford 

There have been countless adaptations of William Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers, Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version perhaps being the most well known while Disney used garden gnomes to tell the tale in the most recent, animated adaptation, "Gnomeo and Juliet." Now 'Downtown Abbey' scribe Julian Fellowes takes a crack with the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" find Hailee Steinfeld starring in director Carlo Carlei's "Romeo & Juliet."

Laura:
This is one odd production, its highs (Paul Giametti's funny, humane take on Friar Laurence; Verona locations) continually dashed by its lows (a shallow adaptation where puppy love replaces passion, a Romeo (Douglas Booth, "LOL") prettier than his Juliet).  One would expect the first production from Swarovski Entertainment (yes, the crystal makers) to be opulently appointed, but when Juliet holds a white rose to her nose, one can see the plastic piece which holds the fake flower to its stem.

The film opens with a voiceover establishing the Montague/Capulet feud as Lord (Damian Lewis, Showtime's 'Homeland,' very good) and Lady Capulet (Natascha McElhone, "The Truman Show," "Solaris") anxiously watch the joust called by Verona's Prince (Stellan Skarsgård, 2011's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") to settle their score with the Montagues (Tomas Arana, "Gladiator,"; Laura Morante, "The Dancer Upstairs"). Capulet's nephew Tybalt (Ed Westwick, "Children of Men") wins the ring over Mercutio (Christian Cooke, Showtime's 'Magic City') and the Prince warns that any further violence between the families in his city's streets will be cause for a death verdict.

The Capulets send invitations for a masked ball, where the couple hope to engage their only child Juliet to Paris (Tom Wisdom, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2"), but when Romeo gains entrance (to woo Capulet cousin Rosaline against the better judgement of his cousin Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee, "The Road," "Let Me In")) and spies Juliet, it's love at first sight for both of them.  But Tybalt (played by Westwick like a deranged comic book villain) spies the gate-crashing Montague and challenges him, despite the peacable comportment of the Montague males.

In the famous balcony scene (replete with artificial flowers), Romeo declares his love for Juliet and the two agree to marry in secret, aided by Juliet's dithering Nurse (Lesley Manville, "All or Nothing," "Another  Year") and Friar Laurence, but when Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo revenges the death, he is banished from Verona.  Juliet turns to the Friar, who concocts a scheme to fake her death on the day of her wedding to Paris, but the plan goes horribly awry.

Steinfeld looks lovely and does reasonably well with the Shakespearean language, but there is nothing to invest in her and Romeo's romance (Manville fares better with her giddy appreciation of Romeo's striking looks).  Douglas Booth is easy on the eyes but his Romeo is a fickle dreamer, his dropping of one woman for another coming across as a mere whim.  Given Steinfeld's age at the time of filming (15), the filmmakers decided to forego any nudity, but the chasteness of the wedding night owes as much to this mismatch as Juliet's restrictive sleepwear.  Any interest comes from supporting players like Giametti, Lewis, Cooke's even-tempered, matey Mercutio and Smit-McPhee's wiser-than-his-years Benvolio.

The film also falters badly with its sugary, overly-insistent score (Abel Korzeniowski, "A Single Man"), a highlight of Zeffirelli's film.  Fellows' screenplay is like a Cliff Notes version, often too literal (the 'love is like smoke' line is uttered as Romeo blows a cloud of dust off the sculpture he is chiseling).  In 1996, Baz Luhrman made a weird MTV hybrid, Shakespearean language with punk rock attitude.  It was a misfire, but at least it had some intriguing ideas and visuals.  In attempting a more classical version, Carlo Carlei and Julian Fellowes have skirted the heart of the matter.

C

Robin:
Robin did not see this film.
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