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.
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.
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.