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Romeo & Juliet: Your Burning Questions Answered

by Ethan Alter October 11, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Romeo & Juliet</i>: Your Burning Questions Answered

We know what you're thinking… another version of Romeo & Juliet? We answer that -- and the rest of your burning questions -- below.

Seriously, though… another version of Romeo & Juliet? Wherefore art thou, Hollywood's good sense?
How many times can those hormonal star-crossed lovers die on-screen, amirite? To be fair though, this Romeo & Juliet didn't originate in Hollywood, which prefers not to touch the Bard unless it's in the context of a modern-day, poetry-free, teen-friendly version like 10 Things I Hate About You or She's the Man. (Yes, that movie is based on Twelfth Night -- look it up). It actually originated with two European companies, the British-based (natch) Amber Entertainment and Swarovski Entertainment, the newly-launched film division of the Austrian crystal empire. So all the money comes from overseas -- even if the film is being released by the U.S. outfit Relativity Media stateside -- where there's a longer tradition of multiple filmed versions of Shakespeare. I mean, how many productions of Romeo & Juliet do you think the BBC has shot and aired over the decades? Gotta be close to six hundred or so. It's also worth noting that the last major theatrical release of this particular play was Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet way back in 1996, when the current crop of teens and tweens -- which is who this movie is really aimed at -- were toddlers, infants, or spermatozoa. Heck, freaking Spider-Man got a reboot before Romeo and Juliet! What's good enough for Stan Lee is definitely good enough for Shakespeare.

Fair point about Spidey -- since that only took a decade to reboot, a 17-year gap between Romeos really isn't that bad. Still, what am I going to see here that I didn't get from the Luhrmann movie?
Well, you're definitely not going to get Leo's baby face, Claire's angel wings, that damn fish tank, the whiplash editing and the soundtrack boasting tunes from Garbage, Everclear and Des'ree. Luhrmann's mission with that movie was to make Shakespeare's play relevant to then-contemporary kids, which he certainly accomplished. That movie is so '90s, it should be wearing flannel and quoting Pulp Fiction. There's only one problem: these days, Romeo + Juliet is even more dated than the 16th century original. Can you even imagine trying to watch it in English class with 21st century kids? They'd be too busy laughing at DiCaprio's Titanic-era hair to hear any of Shakespeare's words. So for this new Romeo & Juliet, director Carlo Carlei opted to keep it classical, which is good for the film's longevity, if not necessarily its creativity. The movie was shot on location in Italy and in period costumes, which basically makes it the heir to Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version -- the filmed Romeo that my generation saw in high school English class and which was most famous for causing spontaneous classroom eruptions thanks to a post-coital bare boobs-and-butt scene. Needless to say, Carlei forgoes the nudity and further dampens the lust of the big sex scene by having Douglas Booth's Romeo and Hailee Steinfeld's Juliet lovingly call each other "wife" and "husband" before getting it on. No premarital sex, please… they're British-by-way-of-Italy!

So why should I see this if I'm not reliving the '90s or getting any nudity?
Because it's a solid version of the play, all things considered? The locations are beautiful, the sets (most of which appear to be existing Renaissance-era Italian structures as opposed to in-studio recreations) are lushly appointed, the story -- Romeo and Juliet meet cute, fall hard and die young (spoiler alert!) -- is cleanly told and the cast speaks ol' Bill's speech just fine. For the Shakespeare purists out there, I should note that not every word from the original play has been preserved onscreen. Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes did a fairly significant rewrite that tweaks the language (though the most famous quotes remain intact) and invents entirely new scenes to give certain characters -- like Damien Lewis's Papa Capulet -- more screen time and motivation. It takes a lot of chutzpah for one to baldly revise Shakespeare like this and on more than a few occasions, the words coming out of the characters' mouths just sound so wrong; there's one scene in particular between Lewis and Mama Capulet (Natascha McElhone) that's packed with so many modern idioms, it almost feels like an outtake where the actors didn't realize they were being filmed. The other revisions aren't quite as distracting and do accomplish Fellowes's stated goal of making the language less intimidating for modern audiences, particularly those of the teen persuasion. (Though we could have an endless debate over whether audiences actually need such hand-holding, since Shakespeare's words are entirely easy to comprehend, even for 16-year-olds, if they would just pay attention.) If you're looking for a filmed Romeo to get your kids acquainted with one of Shakespeare's most easily-digestible plays, this is a perfectly fine (if not entirely authentic) choice.

Let's run through the cast. Hailee's Juliet?
The big thing working in Steinfeld's favor is that she was 16 when she shot the film and thus actually looks like the overly emotional youngster that Juliet is written as. (Danes was around the same age when she made Luhrmann's film, but she always appeared older than her age.) I wish she would have slowed down her delivery a little bit; she rushes through her lines too quickly for viewers to really hear and enjoy the poetry of Shakespeare's verse. But she's got a wide-eyed lack of naïveté that suits the role and makes you feel kind of guilty for thinking that Juilet is a giant nincompoop… which she pretty much is.

And how about her Romeo, Douglas?
He's certainly handsome enough for the part and is more confident in his line readings than Juliet. And I'm not sure any actor could make much out of Romeo, a character who -- when you get right down to it -- is an impetuous jackass. I mean, he starts out the play mooning over poor Rosaline and then immediately transfers his affections to Juliet when it becomes clear that she's the easier lay. He's also got the impatient, hormonal energy of youth dictating his every move and thus keeps doing the stupid thing instead of the right thing. Whether intentional or not, Booth captures Romeo's doltish side, which isn't flattering, but probably a more accurate portrayal than the grandly romantic hero he's often thought of as.

Am I correct in thinking that Chuck Bass is in the movie, too?
Thou art correct, sirrah! Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick lends his formidable scowl and sneer to the role of Tybalt, the hothead who can't abide the thought of Romeo feeling up his cousin and causes all kinds of trouble as a result. I still prefer John Leguizamo's Tybalt from the Luhrmann movie (and Harold Perrineau's Mercutio as well), but Westwick does what's required of him as yet another youngster driven more by passion (in his case for blood rather than love) than sense. That plays into the larger thing I noticed about this Romeo and Juliet: it really does regard these teens as temperamental land-mines whose raging emotions repeatedly lead them to make poor decisions. I get the sense that Fellowes and Carlei are deeply impatient with them, as the film seems to relish the moments were an adult -- like Paul Giamatti's busybody priest, Father Laurence -- tells one or more of the kids to stop being an idiot and use their brains for once. (Speaking as an adult now, I gotta say that I found that kind of satisfying, too.) It's less a tragedy than a cautionary tale of excessive teenage stupidity.

Paul Giamatti's in this?!
Yeah, and he's surprisingly good Shakespearean actor. I also liked McElhone and Lewis, although the latter occasionally has too much of the "Brody staring at his Blackberry" acting face from Homeland going on. Overall, I thought this was a tight ensemble that was mostly on the same level when it came to performing the text. None of them give the definitive screen performance of their specific role, mind you, but they all are on the same page. That's a big change from this year's other Shakespeare film, Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, where the quality of the performances varied wildly, with some (Amy Acker!) absolutely nailing it and others (Sean Maher!) bombing out in a major way.

Oh, Much Ado! I liked that movie.
Glad you did! Always heartening to her folks seeing out and enjoying filmed Shakespeare in whatever form it takes. Personally, I thought it was a fun little movie, but mediocre Shakespeare. The best things about it were Whedon's black-and-white cinematography and the energetic vibe given off by the DIY nature of the production. Romeo & Juliet is a slightly better performance of the play, but a less creative movie if that makes sense. But I do appreciate both for trying to extend an olive branch to viewers who (mistakenly) believe that Shakespeare has ceased to be relevant and/or interesting. This Romeo doesn't completely solve the problem, but it is a step in the right direction. And now that this generation has a Romeo and Juliet to call their own, we can start speculating about who'll play the roles in the 2030 film version. I'm rooting for Miley Cyrus's son and Michael B. Jordan's daughter.

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