Film review: Romeo & Juliet

By Matthew Parkinson

When a particular piece of literature has been adapted for the umpteenth time, you have to wonder why. What does this new version do differently from the others? How does it justify its existence? And, specific to film, why should I go see it in theatres?

For the most recent adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, the answer will be appalling for lovers of William Shakespeare: the film does not use Shakespeare’s dialogue to the letter. Screenwriter Julian Fellows and director Carlo Carlei have decided to alter the words from the play. The movie still sounds Shakespearean, I’ll grant you, but much of the dialogue has either been partially altered or significantly re-written for this new adaptation. That’s the movie’s claim to fame. That’s the reason it exists.

The logic behind this change, I can only assume, is to make it more accessible — easier, so to speak — for the children and teenagers who don’t want to listen to the original dialogue, which sounds different from what they normally hear in day-to-day speech. Or, perhaps, the filmmakers think they’re better writers than Shakespeare — I shudder at the thought. Regardless, this is the first version that has done this and I suppose that makes it original in a sense. This change doesn’t improve it at all, but perhaps it will for the PG-13 crowd for whom it has been created.

If you’re not familiar with the story of Romeo & Juliet — how did you get through high school? — here’s the gist of it: Romeo (Douglas Booth) is part of the Montague family and falls in love with Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), who is part of the Capulet household. The two families hate one another. The love is forbidden. The story follows the two characters as they attempt to find love in spite of what their respective families want.

It’s supposed to be beautiful, romantic and full of emotion. This version is none of that. The lead actors don’t seem to understand how the dialogue is supposed to be delivered, so they mostly monotone their way through the lines. Steinfeld in particular mumbles her inconsistent English accent to such an extent that you sometimes can’t understand her. In addition, the actors have no chemistry with one another. You can’t believe in their love because they don’t turn in strong enough performances. Romeo & Juliet also looks cheap. The sets are sparsely designed and the costumes are unimpressive.

The film’s attempted saving grace is in the supporting cast, where better actors were cast who actually understand how this type of film needs to be performed. We have Paul Giamatti, Lesley Manville, Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone and Stellan Skarsgård. When only they are on screen, Romeo & Juliet almost works. But it’s not their story or film.

This Romeo & Juliet isn’t as terrible a film as Baz Luhrmann’s grand miscalculation in 1996, but it’s not a good movie and it’s likely to anger a lot of traditionalists by altering Shakespeare’s dialogue. And when the perfect adaptation was already filmed in 1968 — the Franco Zeffirelli-helmed, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey-led production — this version comes across as unnecessary and pandering. Rent or buy the ’68 Romeo & Juliet for less than the cost of a movie ticket and enjoy a lovely and gorgeous version of Shakespeare’s play.