Romeo and Juliet is a traditional cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy play, as was filmed on location in the original setting of Verona, Veneto, Italy. The story centers on teenagers Romeo (Douglas Booth) of the House of Montague and Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) of the House of Capulet, who are immediately smitten with one another upon their first meeting – despite the long-standing open hostilities between their respective families, that is.
The young lovers, caught in the maelstrom of impassioned romance (but without the wisdom of age and experience), decide to get married in secret, which the Friar Laurence (Paul Giamatti) consents to, believing that their union could be the key to ending the blood feud between the Capulets and Montagues. However, the couple’s future is soon put in jeopardy by a terrible chain of events, as though fate itself is conspiring to teach Romeo and Juliet’s warring kin a lesson they will never forget.
Oscar-winning actor/writer Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey) adapted Shakespeare’s classic theatrical work about doomed romance for this 21st century film version of Romeo and Juliet. Fellowes’ script retains the thematic essence of the Bard’s original play, yet neither he nor Italian director Carlo Carlei prove able to capture the desired emotional sizzle, nor expand upon the narrative’s substance and insights in a timely fashion. The end movie result is a perfectly competent, yet unremarkable revitalization of Shakespeare’s play on the big screen.
The 2013 film version of Romeo and Juliet is a far more purist interpretation of the original story than other retellings over the years (see: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet), yet it fails to capture how the drama was originally intended to feel to those watching in the audience. Although the elegant costumes manufactured by Carlo Poggioli (Cold Mountain) and find craftsmanship of the historical production design by Tonino Zera (Miracle at St. Anna) deserve to be recognized, the movie isn’t so colorful or expressive in spirit, resulting in an adequate re-staging that nonetheless comes off as too timid for its own good.
Most of the blame for that belongs to director Carlo Carlei, seeing how the script by Fellowes largely amounts to an effective streamlining of the source material (then again, Fellowes could be criticized for not having something new and substantial to add to the text). Carlei gives little cinematic flavor to the scenes that are word-for-word from the Bard’s original play, but he and cinematographer David Tattersall (Star Wars: Episode I-III) still capture the physical/verbal conflicts and the scenes of swooning romance with a satisfactory amount of flair. Unfortunately, the transitional beats in the film usually amount to either a bland montage (showing characters moving to a new location) or a clunky fade to black.
Booth and Steinfeld have the proper adolescent look to portray the titular lovers, in addition to being strong performers who have solid (though, not quite palpable) romantic chemistry onscreen. Giamatti as the Friar Laurence is excellent as ever; in many ways, he is the heart of the film, as he captures the character’s full range of emotions and imbues the climactic drama in the third act with more emotional resonance than it might’ve possessed otherwise. Similarly, Lesley Manville as Juliet’s attendant Nurse plays her sidekick role with charm and rousing spirit (even though it is a little uncomfortable when the character starts waxing poetic about the much-younger Romeo).
The remainder of the cast is likewise solid, including Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) as the earnest Benvolio, Christian Cooke (Magic City) as the fiery Mercutio, Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl) as the impetuous Tybalt, Damien Lewis (Homeland) as the borderline-insecure Lord Capulet, Tom Wisdom (Pirate Radio) as the pitiable Count Paris, and Natascha McElhone (Californication) as Lady Capulet. The only actor who feels somewhat out of place is Stellan Skarsgård (Thor), whose turn as the Prince of Verona is a bit too menacing and unfeeling when he’s meant to be righteously angry and world-weary.
As a whole, though, Romeo and Juliet (2013) benefits from good casting decisions and lovely production values, yet the story execution is stilted and doesn’t feel inspired enough, considering this is supposed to feel like the most powerful tragic romance tale ever told. It’s a respectable adaptation that most moviegoers (young and old) will be able to appreciate, but also the kind that you suspect will leave junior high/high school students bored when they’re forced to watch it for class in the future.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Romeo and Juliet:
Romeo and Juliet is now playing in limited theatrical release. It is 118 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.