“For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo”
It takes a special sort of person to substantively rewrite the dialogue of Romeo and Juliet yet Julian Fellowes still took it on himself to declare Shakespeare’s writing as too impenetrable for da kidz and so replaced it with his own cod-Elizabethan script. It’s a baffling decision – the sheer wrongheadedness aside – as since the narrative of the play remains the same, and the story remains set in vaguely age-appropriate times, nothing intelligent has been done with the adaptation to mark it out as a worthy enterprise.
It’s not helped by a fatally miscast Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, underpowered in her delivery of the text and mismatched with Douglas Booth’s Romeo, there is precisely zero chemistry between these “star cross’d lovers”. There’s always something a bit tricky about how to play the ages of these two (Juliet is meant to be 13…) but as long as they’re cast well together, it works. Here though, they are not, there’s never any danger of believing that they’ve tumbled hard and fast in love (Steinfeld being 15 would make that illegal of course!) and director Carlo Carlei is clearly at fault along with his casting directors.
For there are moments that work here, flashes of inspiration that almost make it worthwhile to give this a watch. The experienced hands of Lesley Manville’s Nurse and Paul Giamatti’s Friar Laurence offer up interesting readings of these crucial characters and how their actions influence the plot so dramatically, plus Damien Lewis is good as a characterful Capulet. And it looks beautiful, costumes are top notch and David Tattersall’s cinematography is lush and richly painted, making strong use of fair Verona itself.
But too often, one is left questioning the decisions made. Why is Mercutio’s hair so bad? Why is Benvolio so much younger than his friends? Why has Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech been cut but Tybalt gets a post-masked ball scene with Juliet? Why is the balcony scene so devoid of personality (and thus overladen with saccharine music)? Why is Rosaline?! It is just altogether too puzzling. The success of Downton Abbey has clearly raised Fellowes’ stock but somebody needs to say no to him and he really needs to listen.