As evidenced by everything from Julie Taymor’s Titus to Baz Luhrmann’s virtuoso Romeo + Juliet, Shakespearean updates often express a sense of zeitgeist-y obligation, a tonal and stylistic responsibility to maximally engage with the (preferably youthful) populace. It’s surprising, then, that this umpteenth iteration of the Bard’s ultimate tragedy doesn’t kowtow to the swoony disciples of Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen, but instead plays it utterly straight. Written by Gosford Park and Downton Abbey mastermind Julian Fellowes, the script reportedly raised some eyebrows for its modifications to Shakespeare’s text, but there’s nothing especially glaring in the translation, and like director Carlo Carlei, Fellowes isn’t beholden to pushy melodrama. What Romeo and Juliet presents is an almost uniformly deft ensemble of actors, most of them British, who perform the work as if in a perfectly competent West End production, albeit on a larger scale.
And yet, there’s something off-putting about that too, specifically in an age when any well-known brand gets re-filtered through the Hollywood system, simply to make a dime. Even during this movie’s most compelling sequences, there’s the ever-nagging sense of “why?” since it generally seems so content to be merely fine. Though filmed, like Franco Zeffirelli’s classic, at castles in the story’s home base of Italy, there’s nothing truly remarkable about the photography or the production design (if anything, you’ll notice the curious plasticity of the vines beneath that light that breaks through yonder window). And when Prince Escalus (Stellan Skarsgård) narrates the opening and guides us into his Renaissance Faire-ish Verona, everything seems to be running on autopilot, from a jousting match between the feuding Montagues and Capulets to the introduction of Romeo (Douglas Booth), who, in a scene that’s admittedly Twilight-esque, is shown aptly carving a figure out of stone, while he himself, bare-chested and sweaty, looks to be chiseled from marble.
Booth, in fact, gives a rather fantastic breakthrough performance, offering a poignant interpretation of one of literature’s greatest lovers, and accessing Romeo’s boyish mystique and eventual, all-consuming anguish. His take on the scene in which Romeo must grapple with news of banishment is particularly wrenching, with lovesick wails to Friar Laurence (an equally affecting Paul Giamatti) booming with conviction. The great trouble is that Booth is almost unspeakably ill-matched, as the gulf between his turn and that of miscast Hailee Steinfeld is wider than the River Adige. Glaringly out of her depth, Steinfeld may have stolen the show in True Grit, but she practically dismantles it here, embodying a Juliet who seems emotionally divorced from her own words, words that are only some of the most famed expressions of love in all of history. The entire “Wherefore art thou?” balcony speech is palpably, sophomorically rushed through, and such lines as “Parting is such sweet sorrow” are left wholly devoid of gravity. Steinfeld is an endearing emerging talent, and her and Booth’s faces look breathtaking pressed against each other. But there isn’t a spark of chemistry between the two actors, and the opposing strengths of their respective performances render Romeo and Juliet a love story that’s only felt from one side.
Naturally, this is an irredeemable flaw for an adaptation of the “greatest romance ever,” and it’s made all the more conspicuous given that virtually every other actor is spot-on. As Lord Capulet, Homeland’s Damian Lewis is gripping even when his work is overcooked; as Mercutio, relative unknown Christian Cooke is customarily virile to the last breath; and as young Benvolio, Kodi Smit-McPhee is all fearless teenage grief, showing considerable growth since his breakout work in The Road and Let Me In. There are some additional things that Romeo and Juliet gets right, like the dizzy buzz of a single kiss that’s often trivialized in today’s Hollywood, and it feels bullyish to ultimately pin the movie’s undoing on Steinfeld. But you simply can’t have a Romeo and Juliet without Juliet, and even with the generic safety of Fellowes and Carlei’s straight approach, her stance as a nonentity is unignorable and damning. Not even when the doomed bride reaches for Romeo’s dagger do you feel a single vicarious pain in your gut.