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'Romeo and Juliet' Review: Hot Kids in a New and Totally Unnecessary Classic

By Amanda Mae Meyncke | Film Reviews | October 15, 2013 | Comments ()


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Ah, Romeo and Juliet, why in the world do you exist, you beautiful, rowdy, slightly better-than-made-for-TV-movie of a movie? Every generation must be made to remember and live through at least two hours of Shakespeare on the big screen, and for every inventive and inviting, imaginative Much Ado About Nothing, there’s a mannered, simplistic, painfully-true-to-authorial-intent Romeo and Juliet. A story that might strike one as romantic, the subject matter of Romeo and Juliet strikes me as such that Shakespeare must have faced what any screenwriter with a mortgage faces: the need for money in a world that doesn’t appreciate art. And just as prolific screenwriters churn out mind-numbing scripts for cash, so Shakespeare fumbled with plot, and plugged the holes with fantastic turns of phrase, but ultimately must have just chugged his tankard of ale and said “To hell with it,” as he put the finishing touches on this melodramatic nightmare.

In this case the talented screenwriter is one Julian Fellowes, best known for bringing the world plenty of ancient English charm in the form of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. And his touch is solely in the writing, the rest is thoroughly the work of other craftsmen. Though some of the details may be lovely, the costumes are… elaborate, the setting is.. elaborate… the acting is.. elaborate… there may in fact not be a burning need for this film. Unless you can add substantially to the world with a new rendition of this classic, then there can be no real reason to make the film. And in fact, we have two very fine versions in recent memory. Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet and the 1968 Zeffirelli version, in which at least we get to see a little nudity, somewhat regrettably absent from this new take. However, it’s very cold to complain about people finding their way into classic literature, in much the same way it used to be tacky to complain about kids reading Harry Potter. At least they’re reading! (Now nobody reads books so this argument is kind of even quainter than it was ten years ago.) At least the kids are watching Shakespeare, though I don’t know how much if it is getting through.

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Hailee Steinfeld comes by her work honestly, delivering her lines with all the power that her innocence can muster, and it’s effective and lovely. However, perhaps the two best actors in this ensemble are Paul Giamatti as the priest, and Lesley Manville as the nurse. Giamatti’s face is remarkable in its ability to convey emotion, and his obvious guilt over the “death” of Juliet is some of the finest work in this piece. Manville treads the line between silly old woman and deeply invested friend to Juliet, and her work is equally as charming and fun to watch. You’ll recognize many familiar faces amongst the throngs, from Ed Westwick’s way of Chuck Bassing up the role of Tybalt, to Damian Lewis’ creepy and passionate turn as Lord Capulet. Stellan Skarsgard as the Prince of Verona looks as if he is tired of standing up, always, and also as if he never meant to cause the Capulets and Montagues any pain, he only wanted to see them standing in the purple rain. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Benvolio is a delightful surprise.

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On to the most important matter. Have you ever seen something so beautiful it starts to frighten and then disgust you? A face so glorious, that you can’t even look at it directly, you see it as you see the sun, without looking? Hailee Steinfeld is one helluva good lookin’ girl, but putting her next to the terrifying visage of Douglas Booth seems downright cruel. Douglas. In the future, people will genetically engineer their children to look like this man, this man with the ignominious name of Douglas. In much the same way the elegant stretch of Calfornia sand and broad, unencumbered sky can never be captured in a name so demeaning as Rat Beach, so Douglas fails to adequately capture the glory of its holder. However, we all must have our crosses to bear and if Doug Booth gets the dubious pleasure of announcing himself as Doug ten hundred thousand times in his life, and if even one person makes a Patty Mayonnaise joke, then the pain of his beauty may have been lessened one iota, and that is good enough for me.

While it seems… shall we say, gloomy and ungrateful to fixate upon small matters, there are a few grievances I’d like to air. When riding a horse, Romeo jostles and bounces like a lovely, chiseled sack of the finest potatoes in all the land, wobbling all over his horse, gritting his teeth as he goes. Serves you right, Doug, you bastard. You can be beautiful or you can ride horses and it’s clear you’ve chosen. I sit, smug, soothed slightly. But that Benvolio kid, Kodi Smith-McPhee the one who did the voice in ParaNorman, daaaaamn boy can actually kind of ride. The most humble of all asides, I lay it at your feet and back away.

In the end, this is a terribly fine thing to love, if you’re in the loving mood. It does no harm to admire and to promote it. Sometimes we need things shown to us in a way we can comprehend, and if this reaches through and interests someone in the dramatic arts and that brings them joy, then a good deed was done. Most of us will be too old, too hardened to believe, however. The coincidences alone will set your head spinning, and the sheer inanity of what exists between Romeo and Juliet is too bitter a pill to swallow for those of us who have spent years loving someone, all for it to come to naught. Part of me, watching these two in rapturous happiness over only a few words spoken, wondered if they’d got it right. Whether it’s better to love someone fully, forgiving their faults because we don’t yet know them, and set our heart free from worry, if only for a little while.

Amanda Mae Meyncke lives in Los Angeles, writes things, and works on movies, too.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • bastich

    True story: I watched the Zeffirelli version in English class every year in high school, and every year my teachers "accidentally" left the nude scene playing. Thank god for Olivia Hussey....

    Needless to say, this is my favorite version of "R&J".

  • Uriah_Creep

    Olivia Hussey = stunning

  • Dita Svelte

    Douglas is heavenly, no question, but he must have had that weird Liberace eyelid surgery on those luscious lips, because I don't think I've ever seen him with his mouth closed. Maybe even the air itself can't be contained by his beauty.

  • Dragonchild

    My take on "Romeo and Juliet" is that it's sarcastic -- a comedy disguised as a tragedy -- and that comes from having read Shakespeare's other works, such as "The Merchant of Venice", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Othello", "Macbeth" and so forth. This guy appealed to the masses to pay his bills, but he was NOT shy about either messing with his characters or mocking his audience while selling out. So here we have a way over-the-top plot with some of the soppiest monologues Shakespeare ever wrote about two lovestruck teenagers too overwhelmed by emotion to pull off eloping without winding up dead, including one of the most WTF dead-not-dead sequences for a climax. . . and it's one of the most glorified romances in literature. Whenever I see an interpretation of R&J played straight-up, I cringe at how everyone missed the point. R&J is Shakespeare poking fun at Twilight from beyond the grave.

  • Maddy

    I'm going to be honest - I have never understood the obsession with Romeo and Juliet. Cool, lets glorify teen suicide! Yay!

  • Dragonchild

    I don't know that people are necessarily obsessed with it. I've never met anyone who considered it their favorite story.

    It's glorified because it's a rare case of an adult-level work for and about teenagers, so it gets thrown onto the pile of works that are "required reading" for advanced HS English courses with other works such as "Catcher in the Rye". The sharper high schoolers capable of understanding the material don't really care for R&J and think Holden is a whiny idiot, but the annual reading of these works is practically a rite of passage in U.S. high schools.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    They have to offset the Teen Mom projections.

  • e jerry powell

    I will be having a double order of Friar Laurence, thanks. The kids can fend for themselves.

  • thatstrangewoman

    I was working in Venice while this was being filmed last year and had the opportunity to meet the actress playing Lady Capulet and her family at dinner one night. I gave her and her costar a tour of the city the next day off they had from the set. Excellent day with "Brody" and "Karen" - very lovely and down to earth people.

  • Jensicola

    My english teacher in high school had what I believe is the most likely explanation for Romeo and Juliet: it was written as a comedy. As you will recall (ahem), in Shakespeare's day all the parts in each play were acted by men; my teacher (who's name was, I shit you not, Dick Burn) asked us to imagine a man in full makeup doing a pantomime of Juliet. Turns out, that shit is hysterical! So, you have a ridic man playing an over-the-top Juliet, ham up the melodrama, e voila! Comedy. I want to see THAT interpretation.

  • Dragonchild

    I too think R&J is a comedy, but I seriously doubt the comedy aspects were overt the way your teacher thinks. They recruited boys to play the parts of women, boys with feminine voices and smooth chins. If Shakespeare wanted overt comedy, he would've written a comedy. While there's humor in the themes and events of R&J, the monologues themselves speak straight from the heart of teens. What makes it funny isn't the delivery; it's that lovestruck teens are some of the most tragically, hilariously stupid creatures on the planet. But if you're going to convey that, you have to play true to their emotions.

  • Wilz

    It's Romeo and Juliet: The Twilighting.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Given the Capulet/Montague internecine hostilities, one would think the producers could have had the Prince of Verona go in a Romeo and Juliet: The Hungergamesening direction

  • Irina

    He's just too pretty, it's a turnoff, gimme a flaw or two I can work with!

  • PDamian

    I saw it last Saturday, and was unimpressed. Amanda's right: this latest iteration really doesn't add much to the film lexicon or to anyone's understanding of Shakespeare. And it's never good when Romeo is far more beautiful than Juliet. Paul Giamatti was pretty spectacular, though, and the costumes and settings were positively sumptuous. And what else could the settings be, as the movie was filmed in Verona and Mantua? Go see if you enjoy your Shakespeare with lots of pageantry and splendor; otherwise, wait for video or skip.

  • Anna von Beav

    We are in 100% full agreement on young Master Booth.

    I'd master his booth, if you catch my drift.

    You know, if I could actually breathe when I looked at him.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I feel that way about Roo Panes. The 21 year old part of my Id is rendered into honey every time I see him.

  • Anna von Beav

    I had to look him up. He's lovely also. He's like the illegitimate love child of my friend's friend Hot Eric and a young George Clooney. Mm hm.

  • Xander

    If they made a modern day version with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Tatiana Maslany I would watch the shit out of it

  • Ben

    Can we get those two in a movie together but not have it be Romeo and Juliet?

  • Xander

    Tristan and Isolda then?

  • Ben

    I don't know what that is but if it's got JGL and Tatina Maslany in I'll be there day one to see it.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I love your reviews so much and I want to comment, but I'm so replete when I'm done all I generally manage is a contented sigh.

  • Kodi Smit-McPhee made me want to smack him in The Road. I've been unable to take him seriously since.

  • Maya

    Great review. I love your writing, Amanda.

  • BWeaves

    But are there authentic codpieces? I hate it when they scrimp on the period costumes.

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