Entertainment :: Movies

Romeo and Juliet

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Oct 11, 2013
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Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth in a scene from ’Romeo and Juliet’
Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth in a scene from ’Romeo and Juliet’  (Source:Amber Entertainment)

Carlo Carlei’s new film version of the classic Shakespeare play "Romeo and Juliet" tries for fleetness and manages speed without grace; strives for brash youthful impulse but swerves into absurdity; aims for passion, but tumbles into corn... or rather, corn syrup.

Welcome to "Romeo and Juliet: The CW Version," where the kids are not quite all right, but it doesn’t matter, because they all dress well and evidently use fashionable products on their flawless skin and luxurious hair. What’s more, they all know what to do in a heated sword fight: When these youths hit the town on a Friday night, they terrorize the place so badly that the local prince (Stellan Skarsgård) has to threaten their entire families with death to restore the peace -- and even then, they refuse to simmer down.

If you had English class in high school, you know the story: It’s Verona in the 15th century, more or less, and two of the city’s first families are engaged in a bitter row (over what, we’re never quite sure). The scion of the Montagues, Romeo (Douglas Booth), becomes smitten with Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), who happens to be the daughter of his family’s arch-nemeses, the Capulets. Soon enough, as teens everywhere have been doing for time immemorial, he’s making stealthy noctural incursions onto her balcony, and into her bedroom. Their situation is untenable, so despite Juliet’s parents intentions to marry her off to a nobleman named Count Paris (Tom Wisdom), the two cook up a scheme to elope.

The actors look age-appropriate, but that’s not a virtue in a production like this, where the boys and girls alike are objectified in a way that seems both campy and a little inappropriate. A ripple of slightly uncomfortable laughter filled the theater when the camera nuzzled up to a shirtless Romeo to pan down for an awkward crotch shot as he and Juliet canoodled on her bed. For a moment I forgot Carlei was the director and thought Larry Clark must have been at the helm.

But then, laughter was a hallmark of the screening. Nothing about the production indicates this was intended to be a comedy, and that makes the campy amusements all the more keen; everything about this film is overwrought and wrung to within a millimeter of its life. And should we be surprised? Costume-drama maven Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay, and it’s as though he were determined to stuff all the soap and high drama of an entire season of "Downton Abbey" into a single two-hour bonfire: Abel Korzeniowski’s score is lachrymose, David Tattersall’s lighting is roseate, the color scheme by production designer Tonino Zera is kitschy, and the acting hammy enough to serve up for Easter dinner. Even the adults in the piece -- including Damian Lewis as Juliet’s father, and especially Lesley Manville as her nurse -- blare every flicker of feeling as though this were a soccer match and not, in theory, a romance destined for tragedy.

At least Paul Giamatti seems to be enjoying himself, practically laughing up his sleeve at the hot blooded antics of silly teens who, for some reason, seem to enjoy hanging out with Giamatti’s herb-growing Friar Laurence. (Hm, what sort of herbs is he growing, anyway, aside from the kind that, when boiled with wine, simulate death?) Giamatti enters the film with a juicy flourish, in full-on Sean Connery "Name of the Rose" mode, then dances around in a fussy straight-man performance, before welling up like the torrid score. Not for a minute do you believe any of it, but you do appreciate Giamatti’s way of seeming to include you in the contest the cast must have reached with the director: He who takes the biggest bites out of the scenery wins. Giamatti lets his choppers loose with zealous abandon, and infuses a little electricity to this otherwise listless project.

That’s not to say there isn’t some fundamental entertainment value here. The production does have a certain grandeur about it; movies, unlike stage productions, have budgetary resources that make it feasible to set this play in its intended place and time, rather than resorting to affordable clothing and props from a charity shop and declaring that this is a "new vision" that places the lovers in 1960s London or something. The text comes to life in the costumes and sets, for a few moments here and there, rather than simply being declaimed. Where it all falters is in the performances and direction. The result is abysmal, but impressive in its way: It takes some doing, after all, to make the Bard’s poetry sound like the lyrics to a CD from a ’tweener pop star painted with glittery mascara.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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