Romeo & Juliet: Film Review

The grown-ups outshine the kids in this handsome, romantically anemic rendering of Shakespeare's perennial.

Julian Fellowes adapts a decorous but bland version of the Shakespearean romance, which features Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld.

Some generations get a Romeo and Juliet that speaks to their times -- Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version played right into flower power and rebellious attitudes, while Baz Luhrmann's 1996 modernized, gangsterized take hit the right urban nerve for its moment. Today's teenagers will have to make do with this decorous but bland version, which with its straightforward presentation and significantly abridged text calls to mind the old Classics Illustrated comic books of classic literature. The older the actors here, the better they are, as pros like Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis have it all over low-voltage young leads Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld. Relativity will be lucky to milk anything more than a moderate take from this pretty but unexciting enactment.

For whatever reason, 'tis the season for the Montagues and Capulets, for along with this film come two contemporaneous New York stage versions, one starring Orlando Bloom and another featuring Elizabeth Olsen. There's even a lesbian stage adaptation, with a female Romeo, in Philadelphia. To be sure, Romeo and Juliet remains one of the Bard's hardiest perennials, a tragedy, which, done at least halfway right, can squeeze tears out of all but the most hardened souls. Even here, the final scenes are effective enough to send those seeing the work for the first time, especially teenage girls, into paroxysms of romantic grief.

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First on the priority list for the producers (there are nine of them, joined by a nearly equal number of executive producers) was obviously the costumes, which are gorgeous and smartly suited to each character (legendary costume designer Milena Canonero is on board as a co-executive producer, although veteran Carlo Poggioli did the honors). A close second would be the photogenic settings, which are exceedingly opulent (the Capulets have never had it so good); a special point was made to do some shooting in the actual settings of Verona and Mantua.

Of course, the leading actors, and most of the others as well, are very easy on the eyes, but more is required than that. Hailee Steinfeld, so good in True Grit three years ago, was just 15 when this was shot last year and, especially toward the beginning, it seems like all she can do just to get the lines out. She speaks too fast and slurs her words without providing emphasis or shading. There's never a privileged moment when she, or the film, pauses to allow her to absorb -- and to communicate to the viewer -- what's happening to her now that she's met Romeo. By the time Juliet awakens in the climactic scene, it feels as if Steinfeld has just begun to come into her own, prompting the thought that she could probably have given a more emotionally credible performance if she could have just started all over again from the beginning.

Douglas Booth, known in his native Britain for playing Boy George in a 2010 TV movie and Pip in a Great Expectations miniseries the following year, was 20 around the time of the shoot and looks, to be sure, absolutely dreamy. He seems to have a grasp of what he's saying and behaves in credibly laddish fashion with his mate Mercutio (Christian Cooke) and cousin Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the kid from The Road). But Booth's vocal range is very narrow, and he speaks in a monotone; for this reason above others, his Romeo fades as the crises mount.

As a result of these shortcomings, this Romeo and Juliet are never united in a common throbbing pulse; they don't take each others' breath away, nor the viewer's. They talk excitedly -- or perhaps it's just quickly -- to each other, gaze at each other admiringly (but not lustfully), scheme enthusiastically for their quickie marriage and plausibly bemoan their enforced separations. But they don't seem like the world's most famous, and doomed, star-crossed lovers. Perhaps understandably, given Steinfeld's age, the wedding night scene is exceptionally chaste.

The other younger actors, including Cooke, Smit-McPhee, Ed Westwick as a perennially enraged Tybalt and Tom Wisdom as Juliet's hapless intended Paris, are OK. But things get better with the grown-ups. Stealing the show, but not in a hammy way, is Giamatti, who makes the frequently caricatured Friar Laurence into the most vibrant character on the scene, a man alive to all the emotional, familial and political currents at play and applying all his ingenuity, sometimes misguidedly, to every situation.

Damian Lewis brings a fierce, even maniacal will to Lord Capulet, whose unyielding determination to control his daughter is chilling. Natascha McElhone hasn't as much to do as his wife but just with her eyes conveys a great deal about the contradictions between her desires for her daughter and the limits of her power. Lesley Manville appealingly plays Juliet's nurse as much for genuine concern for her charge as for comedy. In his few moments as the Prince of Verona, Stellan Skarsgard looks like he's stepped right out of a Renaissance painting.

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Director Carlo Carlei, best known for his Sicilian-set thriller The Flight of the Innocent 21 years ago, puts very attractive images up on the screen (the cinematographer is David Tattersall) but never sets the juices flowing, either in the key romantic scenes or the sword fights, which are rather rote. Celebrated adapter Julian Fellowes has eliminated a great deal of the original text and simplified considerably more, which, given the limitations of the leads, might be just as well. Abel Korzeniowski's constantly churning score employs heaving strings and trilling piano scales in an urgent attempt to rouse the emotions.

Opens: October 11 (Relativity Media)
Production: Amber Films, Echo Lake Entertainment, Swarovski Entertainment
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Paul Giamatti, Stellan Skarsgard, Tomas Arana, Christian Cooke, Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, Laura Morante, Lesley Manville, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ed Westwick, Tom Wisdom, Leon Vitali
Director: Carlo Carlei
Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Producers: Ileen Maisel, Lawrence Elman, Julian Fellowes, Nadja Swarovski, Simon Bosanquet, Alexander Koll, Dimitra Tsingou, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding
Executive producers: Markus Langes-Swarovski, Steven Silver, Neil Tabatznik, Marco Cohen, Benedetto Habib, Fabrizio Donvito, Philip Alberstat, Jackie Walsh, John Walsh III
Director of photography: David Tattersall
Production designer: Tonino Zera
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Peter Honess
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
PG-13 rating, 118 minutes