Here’s betting the new film version of Romeo and Juliet probably won’t inspire a new generation’s passion for Shakespeare. The critical scene (Act 3, Scene 5) is the one when Romeo and Juliet awaken in postcoital honeymoon bliss in her bedchamber. Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) is still in her nightgown. Okay, maybe she’s shy, or cold. But when Romeo (Douglas Booth) hops out of bed, shirtless, he’s wearing a pair of long underwear.
What makes PG-rating sense does not make common sense: The Romeo of the millennial generation should not be attired like a fireman ready to slide.
Seventeen years have passed since Baz Luhrmann’s frolicsome, hip-hop-flavoured Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Forty-five years have passed since the flower-child Franco Zeffirelli version, which the current film superficially resembles: It’s another English-Italian, Italian-set production, with actors who closely match the age of the characters. While Zeffirelli’s film had a palette the colour of lemons and honey, and an indelible theme song, the current version has crisp travelogue cinematography, beautiful costumes and a couple of lovers whose heat registers on par with adjacent cold cuts on a tray.
British tabloids have been contriving a fuss about the fact that screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey, Gosford Park) did some Shakespeare improving for the script, dabbing on some bits of verse and dialogue here and there, like putty on a solid old wall. This is hardly a new practice, from the post-Restoration stage productions to Hollywood meddling, and Fellowes is conscientious in hiding the seams. The play’s most popular lines (“O, that I were a glove upon that hand!”, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” etc.) are all here. The screenwriter also mends at least one long-standing plot hole: So that’s what happened to the messenger who didn’t get to Romeo. Most of the archaic ribald jokes have been excised, which is understandable – guffaws that need footnotes don’t really work – though their omission softens the play’s original romantic-cynical duality.
The only parts here that feel truly grafted on are the attempts to drum up action, including an opening jousting tournament and the use of hand-held cameras to pump up the sword-fight scenes.
All this could be forgiven with a more lovable Romeo and Juliet. Romeo (Booth), when we first meet him, is a limpid-gazed, young-man model with long lashes who, for some reason, is hacking away at a piece of marble with a chisel (an Italian Renaissance thing?). Even among his cohort, though, this Romeo barely stands out. The motor-mouthed Mercutio (Christian Cooke), the puppy-eyed Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the hotheaded Tybalt (Ed Westwick) are all similar handsome, dark-haired, pale young men, who look like they should be characters in the same boy band. Perhaps that’s fair enough: Steinfeld (the indomitable Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ True Grit) seems about the age of a One Direction fan. While her youth and fresh-faced vulnerability have some emotional impact, the actress’s recitative delivery is an impediment; her verbal struggles seem stronger than her romantic ones.
Not everything in the production is so flat. The insipidness of the young lovers puts greater attention on the strong supporting cast. Typically you don’t walk away from Romeo and Juliet thinking about how good Friar Laurence and Lord Capulet were, but that’s what happens here. Paul Giamatti is outstanding as the former, milking every syllable from a role that ends up as the play’s saddest character, a compassionate fuss-budget who means well and messes up horribly. A close second is Damian Lewis, a Royal Shakespeare Company member best known as the returned PoW, Nicholas Brody, on the TV series Homeland. He lends a fresh psychological dimension to Lord Capulet, a vain but not unsympathetic father, suffering retribution for his own misguided attempt at tough love.