Review: 'Romeo & Juliet'

We’re never going to be free of William Shakespeare adaptations – after four hundred years, the Bard and his many works are more popular than ever, and his most well known tales remain templates for the stage and screen alike. The problem with that popularity, however, is that it all but guarantees that for every inventive, entertaining, and smart take on Shakespeare’s work, the world is doomed to endure a few that, well, just aren’t those things. Carlo Carlei’s wholly unnecessary reworking of "Romeo & Juliet" is just such a case of the latter, a flaccid, emotionally lacking, and plain silly take on one of the world’s most beloved love stories.

The story is a familiar one – two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene – centering on the bafflingly dumb feud between the Montagues and the Capulets and the unexpected love that springs up between them. The film opens with a horseback tournament, as demanded by a wholly fed-up prince (Stellan Skarsgard, who apparently needed a paycheck), who believes that moving the fighting that has consumed the city’s streets to a sponsored competition will help ease the issues. He’s wrong, of course, and the ire between the families (and the hotheaded Tybalt, Ed Westwick, who is basically starring in his own wildly over-the-top action film here, and Christian Cooke’s sneering Mercutio) is at a fever pitch. The idiocy of their feud is obvious here, but perhaps accidental, simply coming off as overly dramatic and totally baseless because of bad acting and worse writing, not because Carlei and screenwriter Julian Fellowes have struck to the heart of why feuding families are doomed to die.

In any case, the aftermath of the fruitless tournament doesn’t seem to upset the Capulets (Damian Lewis and Natascha McElhone as Lord and Lady, and a fair job they manage to do here), and the pair are intent on throwing a masked shindig that’s easy for just about anyone to crash – including lovestruck Romeo (Douglas Booth), sweet young Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee, one of the best things about the entire film), and mercurial Mercutio. If there was ever a case for a velvet rope and a security team, Romeo & Juliet is it; it’s essentially a cautionary tale about what happens when riffraff rush a party.

You know the rest – young Romeo and Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) meet and woo without being aware that the other is of the house they hate (really, you’d think they’d know who each other is), leading to a whole mess of bad choices like young marriage, the murdering of relatives, and employing an overwrought friar (Paul Giamatti, who deserves better than this) to help them carry out a flawed plan. While Carlei made a number of smart choices in service to authenticity – casting the young Steinfeld as Juliet, filming the picture in Verona, Italy – the film still manages to feel staggeringly inauthentic from top to bottom. Devoid of nuance, the production rushes between scenes and sequences, clearly assuming that everyone knows the story so well that they don’t need to put actual work into making it click.

As Romeo and Juliet, Steinfeld and Booth are meant to be the very glue of the film, but the pair lacks chemistry and anything that feels enduring, so it’s quite difficult to feel invested in their short-lived relationship. Neither of them appears to have a full grasp on the material at hand, and classic lines are delivered without either understanding or appropriate weight. The balcony scene in particular sees Steinfeld rushing through her lines, running words together and not seeming to mind.

Fellowes notably rewrote and reworked bits of dialogue and plot, in addition to contributing his own pieces of chatter that ape Shakespeare’s style but continually fall spectacularly flat. His contributions are obvious and exceedingly unfaithful, often just dumbing the work down. Fellowes’ many changes and additions diminish the power of Shakespeare’s story, making its weaknesses stick out like a sore thumb. It’s one of the most wrong-headed “straight” adaptations of Shakespeare’s work in recent memory. Paired with lackluster performances and an inauthentic-feeling set and costume design, the result is something that scans as purely amateur.

As Shakespeare himself never wrote (despite Fellowes’ best attempt to shoehorn in a version of it to the film), the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and while the intentions of "Romeo & Juliet" may be good, the results are hellish indeed.

SCORE: 4.5 / 10

VMAs 2018