Romeo and Juliet

April 5, 2014
Douglas Booth in 'Romeo and Juliet' (2013)
Douglas Booth in 'Romeo and Juliet' (2013)

When an actor’s star is rising there is no point in pausing to ask whether they are actually right for a role. Douglas Booth may have been a bit too pretty and soft to play Noah’s son, Shem, but one could say the same about his portrayal of Romeo in Carlo Carlei’s new version of Shakespeare’s well-worn tale.

Having scanned some of the responses to this film it seems that almost everyone feels uncomfortable with Booth’s Romeo being much prettier than Hailee Steinfeld’s Juliet. Alas, it’s true. Steinfeld, who had her shining moment in the Coen Brothers’s True Grit (2010) is cute enough, but really just a lump of a girl. Booth is like a delicate blossom.

As Romeo has to run his sword through Tybalt, and carry on like an over-sexed teenage delinquent, the role probably requires an actor who is a bit rougher around the edges. As for Steinfeld’s Juliet, her worst offence is to race through all the big speeches as if she were trying to get the words out before they faded from memory.

The two stand-outs in this film are Damien Lewis, of Homeland fame, in the role of Lord Capulet; and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. These seasoned actors steal every scene, perhaps feeling the need to add the spark the adaptation lacked. Lewis’s Capulet has a wide-eyed anger that breaks out from time to time when he stops pretending to be a statesman. Giamatti’s friar is equally disconcerting. He comes across as a mad inventor full of brilliant schemes that are destined to end in disaster.

Carlo Carlei may have been hampered by the fact that English, let alone Elizabethan English, is not his native language. His direction is tradesmanlike, more secure with the visuals than the words, when such a familiar story requires an inspired touch.

That touch doesn’t come from scriptwriter, Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, who has added a pedestrian dimension to Shakespeare’s language. I can’t remember ever before hearing the nurse announce that Juliet had good taste in men. Even worse: there are entire scenes that have been invented and added.

Baz Luhrmann’s madcap Romeo + Juliet (1996) may have gone too far in trying to be original at all costs, but it is to be preferred to this attractive but constrained account. R + J may be seen as a turning point in Luhrmann’s career because everything that followed has been unspeakable. Perhaps the words of the Bard acted as a partial restraint on a reckless imagination. With Carlei’s production they have imposed a set of inhibitions.

The film was shot in Verona, and never looks anything but beautiful. The real worry is the way the story seems to have been turned into a ‘young adult’ feature. There is little sexual tension between Romeo and Juliet, who act as if their idea of passion is to share a slumber party. Australian actor, Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Benvolio, seems hardly old enough to be out of short pants. He shouldn’t be allowed to go around waving a sword.

This entire enterprise has the misguided air of making Shakespeare more accessible to an audience whose idea of a timeless classic is a Harry Potter novel. “Shakespeare,” they’ll say. “Wasn’t he the dude who wrote Downton Abbey?”

Romeo and Juliet
UK/Italy/Switzerland, rated M
118 mins
Directed by Carlo Carlei; screenplay by Julian Fellows, from a play by William Shakespeare; starring Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Paul Giamatti, Lesley Manville, Christian Cooke, Ed Westwick

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5 April, 2014.