Julian Fellowes, he of the popular Sunday night entertainment and now morality play Downton Abbey, has written an adaptation of William Shakespeare's most famous romance, the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. It turns out, tragedy is entirely the right term, though not necessarily in the context meant by the Warwickshire wordsmith. For Fellowes has crafted what I am confident in saying is the worst adaptation of a Shakespeare that I have ever seen. And that's a list that includes She's The Man.
When tackling a play with such a lengthy, memorable performance and cinematic history as Romeo & Juliet, it is necessary to take a new approach to the material and provide audiences with a chance to look with fresh eyes at this giddy teenage (and very silly) romance. Zeferelli provided a beautiful, timeless adaptation that took a historical approach to the material, casting teen leads and giving us a story for the ages. Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim gave us an all-singing, all-dancing version in one of the best musicals ever. Luhrmann cranked it up to eleven and brought the play screaming into the modern day, launching stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the process. All wildly different interpretations of the same play and each with something to say about the material. So what do Fellowes and director Carlo Calei give us? The flattest, dullest and most bog-standard interpretation of Shakespeare's text.
Now I am no Shakespeare purist by any means; he is one of those rare writers that can be transported into a wide variety of locations and situations that bring new meaning to his centuries-old words. Fellowes and Carlei could have taken us anywhere, done anything with the text that they wanted to. So we got 16th century Verona. Right. Not only that, but Fellowes kindly did us the honour of each character repeating all the major plot points first in modern(ish) language and then the actual Shakespearean line. Sometimes, just in case we poor souls were completely lost, he even let us hear the same line in modern English again. Thanks Julian. It's just so hard to pay attention to films these days. It's nice to have it repeated at great length.
This insulting and arrogant attitude to the audience was not confined to Fellowes' additions to existing scenes, but also in his creation of entirely new ones. Sometimes, this can be used to great effect, much like re-setting the play in a different location. Here, it seems to have been simply to give supporting cast member Damian Lewis more scenery to gnaw through. These extra scenes served little to advance the plot beyond making sure the audience knew exactly what was going on at any given moment. There were odd scenes such as the one in which Tybalt (a hilariously growling Ed Westwick) swore Juliet's honour was his only care. It set up an odd dynamic to their relationship that was picked up and dropped again as Tybalt's corpse hit the ground. Poor Natascha McElhone got saddled with the brunt of these scenes in an attempt to flesh out her character of Lady Capulet. It didn't work.
It also ensured that the pacing to the film was completely off. Big moments like Romeo (Douglas Booth) and Juliet's (Hailee Steinfeld) meeting at the dance is sped through and culminates in a scene my friend memorably described as a 'kissing behind the bike sheds' moment. Likewise, Mercutio (Christian Cooke) is barely a footnote in a play in which he's one of the most popular characters. His death scene that is full of fantastic language and damning speeches is reduced to about three lines and a bloody cough. Even the many fencing scenes are boring, badly choreographed and over far too quickly. Instead, we get the lengthy scene in which the Friar tells Juliet of his plan that gives us an alternate reality version of climax of the play for seemingly no other reason than to labour the tragedy of the ending.
Scenes that should carry some emotional heft barely even register; Mercutio and Tybalt's deaths carry so little weight that as the turning point of the play, it feels like a slight bend rather than the complete hairpin that it should do. In fact, Fellowes seems in such a rush to get to the final scenes, because we all know how it happens, that he forgets to make us care about these characters. None of the family dynamics are present, none of the conflict that family loyalty brings is present for the central pair beyond the words they speak. For someone so confident in his audience not understanding the play, Fellowes has managed to completely misread it in just about every way possible. Relying on the tragic ending alone to inspire sympathy for your characters is just lazy.
The butcher's approach to the text bled into the performances of the cast, a random hotch-potch that felt like every single one of them was in a completely different film to the next character along. Westwick tries to bring a weighty gravitas to Tybalt by scowling and stalking through every scene he's let near; the effect is rather comical and I defy anyone not to laugh when he appears for the duel, hair blowing in his face and dust rising from his heavy footsteps. Paul Giamatti's Friar Lawrence manages to bring actual gravitas to his role and seems to be the only person who understands the emotional beats of the scenes he is in. Damian Lewis, on the other hand, veers from comical to patriarchal tyrant so fast, it feels like he's filming various different films at once.
As central duos go, there could have been a less appealing combination than Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth. Though their delivery of the Shakespearean dialogue occasionally reminded me of many an afternoon sat listening to classmates murder blank verse, they imbue their characters with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that carries them through the film as the rest of it falls apart. She is pretty and floaty, he is heroically masculine yet sensitive. Just to hammer that home, Romeo's introduction finds him carving a statue whilst wearing a shirt open to the navel, bearing his sweaty, manly, manly chest for all to see. I think I was supposed to swoon, but instead I rolled my eyes. It was the first of many.
Perhaps the only positive that can be salvaged from the film, and I am really struggling to find much more, is that it looks beautiful; light casts down in angelic beams that highlight the production design. The costumes are beautiful though the colour schemes seemed a little confused when it came to distinguishing Montagues and Capulets. The fact that it looks so pretty softens the blow slightly as you are watching Shakespeare's text ripped to shreds in front of your eyes.
A film so heavy-handed, it feels like being bashed over the head with a copy of The Complete Works, Romeo & Juliet will do absolutely nothing to challenge the existing iconic adaptations of the play. In fact, it may just make you appreciate them that little bit more.
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