A couple of months ago I wrote a post on my excitement of seeing the newly adapted movie Romeo and Juliet (which if you are interested, can be viewed here). Rushing out of a two hour seminar at university that focused on Hamlet to get to the theatre, I was already on an adrenaline high, all Shakespeare’d , pumped and ready. Unfortunately, I was completely let down.
It would be pointless reiterating the synopsis of the movie, as it is of course one of the most legendary and famous stories in the world. Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey, decided to adapt Shakespeare’s masterpiece, combining Shakespeare’s poetic verse with watered-down modern speech, creating an unacceptably clunky interpretation of Shakespeare.
Effeminate looking Douglas Booth and Oscar nominated Hailee Seinfeld play the titular, lead star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. I was convinced that after her stunning debut performance in True Grit, Stienfeld would be able to aptly portray Juliet in a mature fashion. Unfortunately, her dialogue feels rushed, as though she had merely memorised the script and needed to spit it out before she forgot it. Booth is a little better, as though he had a slight understanding of the words he was speaking. Their chemistry feels forced, awkward and hardly genuine, leading to an uncharismatic and less than inspiring performance from both actors. They were clearly hired to merely look pretty. It is the veteran actors such as Paul Giamatti as an impatient and cowardly Friar Lawrence (Cinderella Man) and Damian Lewis (Homeland) as Capulet who stand out a little more, particularly Lewis who managed, switching from jubilant, to abusive and comical in almost an instant.
One of the things that make Shakespeare so unique is his ability to weave such a complex narrative with poetic language, creating fascinating and intricate characters, yet Fellowes’ feels the need to completely massacre Shakespeare’s original manuscript. Mr Fellowes, seriously, what have you done?! Some of the most memorable and poignant scenes are cut out. For example, Romeo’s “ O loving hate,” speech is edited out and is essential in portraying Romeo as a hopeless and fickle romantic. There seems to be a hybridity to the dialogue with a sliver of Shakespeare’s original mingled with modern, 21st century vernacular. In one scene the nurse exclaims “My back is killing me”, a phrase I am certain was not spoken in the 16th century. Fellowes hit headlines earlier this week as he stated he had a better understanding of Shakespeare because he attended Cambridge, a claim that has sparked outrage from Shakespeare lovers everywhere. This elitist attitude is evident in his script as he seemingly waters-down the Shakespearian language with modern speech for those of us who haven’t had the privilege of such a seemingly wonderful and expensive education. These alterations mask the true value of Shakespeare’s original text. Romeo and Juliet was marketed as what appeared to be true to the original text and I felt oddly deceived at not receiving that language. Carlos Carlei ‘s strategy appeared to be to utilise as much selling piano score in order to convey emotions the actors couldn’t competently complete, a tactic that failed miserably and led to a melodramatic and cheesy mess.
The costumes were near enough satisfactory, particularly Juliet’s wardrobe as Steinfeld donned traditional renaissance dresses. The aspect that really stopped me from walking out of the theatre was the sets. The advantages of shooting in Verona have certainly paid as the sets were stunning and added a slight authenticity to the confusing and clumsy chaos of a script.
Fellowes succeeds in completely desecrating Shakespeare’s genius, poetic language. Whilst it attempts to replicate the charm of Zeffreli’s adaptation and compete with the modernity of Luhrmann’s, this lifeless, dull and exaggerated adaptation is not in league with either versions and offers nothing original. I would recommend this to anyone to demonstrate how NOT to adapt a Shakespeare play.
Based on: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Screenplay by: Julian Fellowes
Directed by: Carlos Carlei
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Ed Westwick, Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Stellan Skarsgard
My Verdict: 2/10