There was plenty of eye-rolling when it was announced a new version of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet was in the works. Many asked whether after Franco Zeferelli and Baz Luhrmann’s versions, we needed another take. However in my opinion there’s no real problem with doing Romeo & Juliet on film again – but you do need to bring something new to the party, or at least do the old stuff so well it’s riveting in its own right.
Sadly this take doesn’t manage either. It manages the seemingly contrary feat of feeling so old-fashioned that it’s almost preserved in amber, while also having brand new and unnecessary dialogue (courtesy of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes) that’s a little jarring to those who know the play.
You probably know the plot, which follows Romeo Montague, who despite his family being in a bitter conflict with the rival Capulets, decides to go to one of their parties in the hope of seeing the beautiful Rosaline. However once there Rosaline is forgotten the moment he sees Juliet Capulet. It’s immediately star-crossed lovers time, with Romeo and Juliet deciding they must wed in secret. However the rivalry between the families bubbles up in ways that never did have more woe.
Many have criticised Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld in the title roles, saying they’re completely outshone by old hands such as Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. However to my mind they’re all pretty much on a par as nobody is given much to work with. There’s a slight sensation you’d get as good a production with a very good amateur dramatics group. It’s not really their fault, as the film shows so little imagination and is so intent on underplaying some of the more famous moments (seemingly not appreciating why they’re famous), that it sucks the magic and romance out of the entire thing. It certainly doesn’t help that Fellowes’ new dialogue often doesn’t sound quite right, using modern phrasing that doesn’t fit with the rest of the play.
It’s particularly problematic as the plot on the play is actually pretty implausible if you spend any time thinking about it, but it transcends that thanks to some of the most incandescent dialogue in the English language. However here it’s all flattened out to the point where the dafter parts of the story are laid bare and as a result the romance feels forced.
Much of the blame must go to director Carlo Carlei’s, who films the whole thing in a way that’s as old-fashioned as his approach to the play. Indeed at times it hits notes that get clumsily close to panto.
On the plus side it looks gorgeous (as do many of the actors), which you really can breathe in on Blu-ray. The costume designers must have been given about half the budget and they spent it well, with glorious renaissance clothing that look tremendous. There’s also little doubt that actually shooting in Italy and using plenty of the country’s medieval locations adds to the feel of the movie. It’s just a shame so much attention was paid to this side of the film and so little to ensuring it did justice to Shakespeare’s story.
Overall Verdict: Despite looking the part, this new Romeo & Juliet’s takes of the classic tale is so anaemic it’s less star-crossed and more by-the-numbers.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac