What a tragedy.
If your only knowledge of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet comes from some dreadfully boring ninth-grade English class, you owe it to yourself to seek out a performance of it, as it’s still a crowd-pleaser after 400 years. You’ve got the old-fashioned and maybe a little creaky 1930s version with John Barrymore, the stalwart and maybe a little goofy 1960s Franco Zeffirelli version, and the modernized and quite possibly awful 1990s Baz Luhrman version. In 2013, we got a new version of Shake’s classic: Director Carlo Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet (2013) (Blu-ray). How does it stand as an adaptation? Let me tell you, there was never a tale of more woe…
Old-timey Verona, Italy, is wracked with violence. Two prominent families, the Capulets and the Montagues, hate one another so much that their feud has led to bloodshed in the streets. Romeo (Douglas Booth, Noah), son of Montague, crashes a Capulet party and immediately strikes up a romance with Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit), daughter of Capulet. Romeo and Juliet want to marry, so great is their love, but their families and fate itself stands in the way.
When adapting Shakespeare, producers face a choice of whether to dig deep and explore every bit of nuance, meaning, and complexity possible (Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet) or to streamline the play in an attempt to make it accessible for mass audiences (Mel Gibson’s Hamlet). The best versions often find a happy medium between the two (David Tennant’s Hamlet). This new Romeo and Juliet doesn’t just go for the “accessible” route, it really goes for it.
As the movie started, I was into it. It’s filmed on location in Verona at actual historic sites, everyone is dressed in their best Italian Renaissance finery, and the whole thing looks like gorgeous. Then, the famous opening narration begins, and there’s a line about a tournament. I hit pause and thought, “Is that the right line?” I grabbed my Folger edition of Romeo and Juliet off the shelf, flipped it open to Act One, Scene One and compared. That’s when it hit me like no shortage of bricks:
They messed with the text.
I’d estimate that maybe about one-fourth of the movie is what Shakespeare wrote. The rest of the text has either been cut in huge swaths or been rewritten in sad attempts to be more understandable. Some changes are arguably inoffensive, such as changing “thou” to “you.” In other cases, though, the changes mean we lose a lot of Shakespeare’s important color or nuance. For example, just after Juliet has met and danced with Romeo for the first time and she’s overwhelmed with teenage love, the nurse asks her “What ’tis?” In Shakespeare’s text, Juliet answers, “A rhyme I learnt even now of one I danced withal.” In the movie, this line is replaced with her saying, “It’s nothing.” See a difference there? In another scene, a character quotes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This line is not from Shakespeare (it’s an old proverb), so what is it even doing here?
Even more damning is the shockingly huge amount of original text sliced ‘n’ diced from the film. Basically, if it’s not a plot point or a line people might have heard before, it’s on the cutting room floor. Take Romeo’s pal Mercutio (Christian Cooke, Cemetery Junction) and his well-known Queen Mab speech. In the movie, the speech is cut down to about two sentences max. It’s only here because the producers are saying, “Here’s a reference to a thing you remember from the play. Now let’s move on.” The damage this causes is that we don’t see how playful and full of life of a character Mercutio is. First-time viewers are left knowing this character as nothing but Romeo’s generic friend.
OK, so can the movie get away with merely being “inspired by” the play, rather than a direct adaptation? You know, like how Throne of Blood and Scotland, Pa. are loose versions of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”? That argument won’t work for this new Romeo and Juliet, because just enough of what Shakespeare wrote is still here so that there’s nothing else it can be but Romeo and Juliet. No, this is watered-down, dumbed-down, insult-your-intelligence Shakespeare, and that’s just sad.
Did I enjoy anything about the movie? Despite the ruination of the script, the actors jump into this with gusto. Booth is a great Romeo, full of energy of excitement, in love with the idea of being in love. Steinfeld has received some criticisms for being too stiff as Juliet, but I don’t see it. Juliet is a challenging character, in that she transforms from naïve adolescent to willful bride throughout the course of the story. I thought Steinfeld did just fine, especially during the more tear-jerky moments. Paul Giamatti (Sideways) is especially good as Friar Lawrence, making it clear that the friar has an ulterior motive for helping the young lovers. Finally, despite my disappointment with what’s been done to the text, when Juliet walks out on that balcony, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment, because, come on, it’s Juliet on the balcony.
As noted above, the location filming and elaborate costumes mean the movie has production value to spare, and it shines on Romeo and Juliet (2013) (Blu-ray), with vivid, rich colors. Juliet is often lit with in ol’ Botticelli-painting style, and the flesh tones and details really pop during these close-ups. Audio is decent, although a few times the score drowned out the dialogue. For bonus features, there are four featurettes, “Cast and Crew,” “Creating the Look,” “Hair and Makeup,” and “The Filmmaker’s Vision.”