Romeo & Juliet
DIRECTOR: Carlo Carlei
CAST: Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Ed Westwick and Paul Giamatti
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
SUCH was the popularity of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, that it has been inspiring cinematic and small screen offerings (not discounting the array of theatrical ventures) since the 1900s.
The challenge then, for every director and screenwriter, has been to stay true to the timeless tale while also taking into account their audience and the modern landscape.
Along the way Julian Fellowes, confident after the success of his award-winning period drama, Downton Abbey, decided to take a stab at it, too. Clearly, he felt creatively spurred to write the screenplay.
That said, the filmmakers did bag an impressive supporting cast with Lewis, McElhone and Giamatti. And they secured Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and a fresh-faced (on the big screen, that is) Douglas Booth to play the eponymous characters.
The story takes shape when Romeo, attempting to woo Rosaline, finds himself distracted by Juliet instead, at a masquerade ball thrown by her parents, Lord and Lady Capulet (Lewis and McElhone).
While Juliet’s parents are hoping for a matrimonial union between their young daughter and a young Count Paris (Tom Wisdom), she is also drawn to the enigmatic Romeo.
And so begins their quest to be together despite the various obstacles standing in the way of their love – from belonging to feuding families (the Capulets and Montagues) to her volatile cousin Tybalt’s interference, which results in his murder at the hands of Romeo, who is then banished, as well as Juliet’s impending marriage.
Meanwhile, Juliet’s handmaiden- cum-nanny and Friar Laurence (Giamatti) are the couple’s only allies, with the friar coming up with a plan that could see the two riding off into the sunset and living happily ever after. Of course, you know what they say about the best-laid plans!
While the setting and the costumes are in keeping with the tale, you can’t help but feel as if you are watching a grandiose stage production. And the narrative leaves a lot to be desired.
Romeo & Juliet doesn’t leave you moved by the struggles of the star-crossed lovers. And it is even more disturbing when the hero is more beautiful than his bushy eyebrowed heroine. Booth’s performance is mediocre – but the camera loves him. Steinfeld channels the innocence of her character well, however, she is too much of a Plain Jane to curry favour with the audience.
Lewis, with a rather hideous hairdo that I’m glad he had in character and not real life, is sublimely over the top as a father who switches from loving to authoritative to overbearing with ease thanks to his acting experience. McElhone embodied her regal character with aplomb. Westwick’s performance was negligible – and his character annoying.
If I wanted to see the bad boy in action I could have just watched reruns of Gossip Girl. Substance, it seems, isn’t much of a prerogative for him in his big screen exploits.
The true star for me was Giamatti with an unassuming performance that outshone the film’s lead talent. Also, he was by far the most engaging, unlike that pathetic ineffectual sword fighting scene.
Bottom line: if you are going to tell an iconic story it had better trump everything else seen to date. Baz Luhman understood the gravity of pulling off such a feat, hence his Romeo + Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes was a roaring success. Perhaps this is a lesson leant for both Carlei and Fellowes.
If you liked any of the Romeo and Juliet movies, Pride & Prejudice or Jane Eyre you might enjoy this.