Romeo and Juliet experienced a weird post-modern revival in the late 90s, in the form of Baz Luhrmann's wild and lavish adaptation as well as Shakespeare in Love, which used the hoary old story as the backdrop for a new, slightly less tragic romance. As a teenager of the late 90s I automatically pity the teens these days who didn't learn Romeo & Juliet that way, but I swear it's not just 90s nostalgia that had me squirming and yawning all the way through this new version, starring True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld and Human Ken Doll Douglas Booth as the doomed lovers. Every generation gets their own Romeo and Juliet, but kids these days really didn't deserve this dull, cheapo attempt.
Though remembered as a fairly simple story of true love, Romeo & Juliet always requires some trimming on its way to the screen, but rarely as choppily and bizarrely as director Carlo Carlei presents it here (yes, the script is adapted by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes, but remember, he's also the guy who brought us The Tourist). The film begins with the famous prologue, "Two houses, both alike in dignity" but then introduces a jousting match in which we see the rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets boiled down to two men on horseback. Before we meet Juliet (Steinfeld) getting dressed for the party with her mother and nurse, we see a near-silent scene of her walking up stairs, smiling beatifically at the camera as if she's a movie star of the 1940s making her big entrance. That's actually nothing compared to the introduction of Romeo (Booth), who spends his free time sculpting marble busts with his shirt unbuttoned down to his belly button. There may as well be ushers flashing "Everybody squeal!" cue cards at the presumed tween audience.
All the highlights are here, from the meet-cute at the masked ball to the balcony scene to the bloody confrontations that spin the story toward tragedy, but the entire film plays out in the same, heightened pitch, like a 10th-grade assigned to read the Queen Mab speech in English class and only understanding that he ought to make it sound dramatic. Steinfeld, who mastered the arcane language of True Grit so well, is utterly adrift with Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, rushing through her abridged monologues and mostly substituting grinning or sobbing for the various high emotions of being in love. Booth may better understand his lines, but he's got no charisma to back it up; he and Steinfeld wouldn't even make convincing scene partners in that same 10th grade English class, and when Romeo & Juliet have the chance to actually get close together, the lack of chemistry is laughable. It's one thing to find two teenagers who can handle Shakespearean language, but couldn't they at least find a pair who made it look fun to make out?
The impressively stacked cast includes some people who fare a bit better; Homeland's Damian Lewis makes a strong impact as the thundering Lord Capulet, and Paul Giamatti emerges as the film's surprising moral center as Friar Laurence, the man who helps Romeo & Juliet get together and feels the most pain at their demise. Kodi Smit-McPhee, the child actor from Let Me In and The Road is a tender and baby-faced Benvolio-- what I would have given to see him play Romeo instead. And as the play's most fun character Mercutio, Christian Cooke manages to be hunky and interesting, though without nearly enough time to do it (you didn't think they'd leave the Queen Mab speech intact, did you?) Poor Ed Westwick, of Gossip Girl fame, earns some laughs as the fiery Tybalt, though that's mostly the fault of his ridiculous wig and Carlei's bizarre editing choices. You can be giving the greatest cinematic Shakespearean performance in history, but if the director is only going to cut to shots of you holding a mace and glowering, even Laurence Olivier wouldn't stand a chance.
Romeo and Juliet is such an infinitely adaptable story-- we live in a world that includes Gnomeo & Juliet, for God's sake-- that it seems silly to do it straight, especially when Franco Zefferelli's perfectly romantic, period appropriate 1968 version is still out there. Without a performance or directing choice or even much of Shakespeare's language left intact to recommend it, Romeo and Juliet's best fate is probably as a PG-13 version of the classic to be shown by substitute teachers for years to come.