Julian Fellowes has brought back William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the big screen, with Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet Capulet and Douglas Booth as Romeo Montague, and set it back to its original 16th century form– away from its last film adaptation, Baz Luhrmann’s contemporary “Romeo + Juliet.”
Fellowes, known for his award-winning writing for productions like “Downton Abbey” and “Gosford Park,” wrote the screenplay in a reduced version of Shakespearean language for this adaptation, which felt aimed at teenagers.
Although the language was watered down, the script was still hard to understand at times and did not flow smoothly, especially during the first half of the film. Steinfeld, who shined with her line delivery in “True Grit,” often whispered and sped through her lines during important scenes, which reduced the level of romance between the two main characters.
Unlike the 1968 version, where Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey acted playful and flirty when they initially meet, Steinfeld and Booth rushed through some of the play’s most iconic lines and kissed after what felt like 30 seconds after they first laid eyes on each other. As a result of the rushed beginning scenes, the chemistry between Steinfeld and Booth was at first hard to believe. The initial bond did not feel strong enough for Romeo to forget about the woman he claimed to love, Rosaline, or accept a marriage to Juliet.
Despite the shaky beginning, the film did have some high points.
Steinfeld acted up to par with Damian Lewis, who played Lord Capulet. When Juliet refused to marry Count Paris, Steinfeld and Lewis fed off each other’s acting and made the scene believable to the point where you felt scared for Juliet’s safety against Lord Capulet’s wrath. In this scene, Steinfeld perfectly captured the frustration and inner struggle between choosing the man she loves or following through with her father’s wishes, who she also loves and respects.
In comparison to other Juliet versions, Steinfeld, a teenager herself, portrayed Juliet as a more innocent girl, swept away by the thought of romance. The director, Carlo Carlei, kept true to Steinfeld’s portrayal and maintained a level of innocence throughout the movie, including during Romeo and Juliet’s wedding night.
Supporting characters, like Friar Laurence, played by Paul Giamatti, acted as a father-like figure to Romeo and delivered quirky, clever lines. At some points, Giamatti brought some comic relief such as when he tries to slap some sense into Romeo and tells him, “Enough fluff talk.”
Ed Westwick also delivered one of the most surprising performances as Juliet’s ill tempered, Montague bloodthirsty cousin, Tybalt – a refreshing performance away from his most prominent role as the womanizing Chuck Bass in “Gossip Girl.”
Although the ending of the tale is well known, the scene where Romeo drinks the poison next to Juliet’s sedated body was shot in a suspenseful way, where you felt a glimmering hope that Romeo and Juliet were going to get their happily ever after.
By the end, the film was able to make Romeo and Juliet’s passion believable. This “Romeo and Juliet” will probably not be played in high school classrooms, but it is a happy medium between the 1968 version and Baz Luhrmann’s production. Although the film does not completely stay true to Shakespearian language, it makes up for it with stunning Italian scenery and intricate period costumes.
Mariela Patron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.