When it comes to the star-crossed love of Romeo and Juliet, whether you use the language of Shakespeare or the discourse of Twitter, the passion must be scorching, the angst and the irony feuding, the desire unquenchable, the deaths unending.
Anything less and you’re left with an ordinary affair of the teenage heart.
The newest “Romeo & Juliet” rendering, with Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as the desperately devoted, is something else entirely.
So reverential is this play of the play, the Bard would likely blush. Director Carlo Carlei and writer Julian Fellowes, with a screenplay Oscar for the brilliant upstairs-downstairs of Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” chose to work with the original’s lyrical verse and they’ve done a tight job of slicing and dicing. Meanwhile the swords and steeds and puffy shirts are vintage 14th century, the gowns suitably gossamer.
The well-seasoned cast gathered around the pretty young things handle the language fluidly and the costumes handsomely. “Homeland’s” Damian Lewis almost makes you forget about Brody’s troubles as Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father. “Gossip Girl’s” deliciously devious Ed Westwick is ideal as her hot-under-the-collar cousin Tybalt. Stellan Skarsgard handles his walk-ons as ruling Prince Escalus with the proper pomp. And there is some excellent meddling done by Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville as Nurse and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. The plotting pair are responsible for many of the film’s high points.
There are all the intrigues and the preening egos of the battling Montagues and Capulets that Shakespeare initially envisioned too. For anyone not familiar with the story — is there anyone? — Fellowes hues closely. Young Romeo spies the beautiful Juliet across a crowded room and a spark ignites that even a blood feud cannot douse. Sneaking through bedroom windows — “Wherefore art thou?” — stolen kisses and a secret wedding follow. And then things go seriously awry until that unforgettable finale — (spoiler) the two young lovers dying in each other’s arms — thereby creating the template for most of our modern-day romantic comedies and dramas. “Grease,” anyone?
It is impossible not to measure Carlei’s film against all the many formers. The best on the classic front remains Franco Zeffirelli’s in 1968, which introduced Olivia Hussey, and Baz Luhrmann’s gritty modern hipsters nearly 30 years later with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as “Romeo + Juliet.”
Though the effort in this “Romeo” is earnest, the film fails to capture the Shakespearean essence of the many tragedies trotted out. The florid and heedless love where feelings are hurt, families are rent, grudges are roiled, social conventions are defied, remains far too polite.
This is Shakespeare lite, which ultimately makes for Shakespeare slightly trite. Oh the woe.
Even the sets seem designed not to intrude. Veteran Tonino Zera has stripped them to the bone, creating a minimalist vision of the 14th century that leaves the streets of Verona bare. A crowd scene or two, yes, but the overall effect is of a carefully staged world, swept so clean of debris and humanity, it is as if Verona, like us, is waiting for something to happen.
And now to our lovers — as mismatched as they are star-crossed.
Steinfeld is still trying to find her footing after her stunning quick success in 2010’s “True Grit.” Her turn as a cheeky young girl manhandling a crusty old gunslinger earned her an Oscar nomination and piled on the expectations of greater things to come.
“Romeo & Juliet” is not going to be the one to do it for her. It’s certainly not an embarrassment. She makes a sweet innocent. But nothing quite clicks whether opposite an adoring Romeo, her dotty nurse or her raging father.
The one to remember, who likely will be remembered, is Booth. It’s not so much that he makes a great Romeo; frankly DiCaprio’s was better in Luhrmann’s version, as was Leonard Whiting in Zeffirelli’s. Maybe only Leos should do the role… But it has been a while since a camera has so loved a face.
There is not one inch of Booth — cheekbones to chin — left unexamined, un-caressed by director of photography David Tatersall’s lens. If anything, the movies in general are too intent on reducing Booth to that singular feature, when he is actually a fine actor. He handles Romeo well enough, though there is the matter of a tear that hangs for an eternity. Not his fault. A better sense of Booth can be found in his haunting grown-up Pip in the excellent 2011 British miniseries “Great Expectations.”
Next year brings a range of big and small films for both young actors that may set a clearer course for what to make of their future. As to this particular “Romeo & Juliet,” I predict it will soon be forgotten. Rather than woe, perhaps a relief.
‘Romeo & Juliet’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In general release