Mark Reviews Movies

Romeo & Juliet


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Carlo Carlei

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Paul Giamatti, Christian Cooke, Lesley Manville, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, Ed Westwick, Tom Wisdom, Stellan Skarsgård, Leon Vitali, Tomas Arana, Laura Morante

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 10/11/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 10, 2013

I have heard the point made a few times, but Romeo & Juliet, the umpteenth time Shakespeare's famous tale of star-crossed lovers has been adapted for a screen big or small and allowed a new generation to realize that "star-crossed" is not a good thing, is the first time I've noticed that the friar's plan makes absolutely no sense. The situation, as one undoubtedly knows, is that the lovers have been separated—their love forced into a long-distance relationship on account of a pair of murders.

Juliet is devastated to learn that her father wants her to marry another man. If she doesn't, he will disown her. She says she is ready to kill herself over the impending nuptials, so the friar—apparently in a moment of losing his common sense after having to put up with two youngsters interrupting his business with suicidal proclamations—concocts a plan and a potion.

She will fake her death, and he will send for Romeo to retrieve her from her family tomb. The two will then be free to run away together and live out the rest of their lives.

Here's the thing: Why does Juliet need to go through the deception? Couldn't she just as easily tell her father she refuses to marry the other man?

The end result would, essentially, be the same. Either being disowned or pretending to be dead, she wouldn't have any contact with her family. Romeo wouldn't have to risk being caught back in the city after being banished, and the friar could just as easily arrange safe travel for Juliet to be reunited with her husband (Besides, what kind of friar believes it's a good idea to convince a young girl's parents to believe that their only daughter is dead?). It would definitely be less risky than the incredibly time-sensitive scheme with which he comes up would be.

During an effective production of the play, of course, this odd plan doesn't matter. We should be caught up in the lovers' story, in which—as everyone undoubtedly knows—the children of two feuding families fall in love, to the point that we simply accept this as the only viable option for them. Obviously, director Carlo Carlei's version is not one of those productions.

Part of the reason we focus so intently on what the friar has to say is because he is played by Paul Giamatti in a performance that rises above the rest of the actors and, indeed, the movie itself. Giamatti possesses a command of the language and a specificity of performance that turns a character who should, by all reason, simply be a plot device into the movie's most sympathetic and memorable figure. Note the way he plays the increasing frustration with Romeo's melodramatic pining, which leads to a slap that is the movie's most honest moment, and compare it to how he treats Juliet's similar intonations. Friar Laurence knows Romeo better and expects better from him; with Juliet, he's genuinely concerned. When he bears witness to his plan failing, there is only a hollow shell of the man left.

The rest of the cast pales in comparison. Hailee Steinfeld rushes through her lines as Juliet, and Douglas Booth's Romeo is not particularly adept at poetry. He can describe Juliet just fine when he's watching her on the balcony, but before she arrives, Booth's recitation of the start of the soliloquy (one of the very few that remain here) comparing his love to the sun is just that—recitation. Part of the issue might be screenwriter Julian Fellowes's adaptation, which has come under fire from some scholars for changing the phrasing (Sadly, I cannot say how much and to what degree it has been changed, as I left my Arden volume—the best way to go, by the way—of the complete works of Shakespeare at home).

Something does feel off here. Most of it comes from the fact that the central romance has been reduced to a series of stares—sometimes in slow motion—and long, passionate kisses, and the lines in between them start to come across as necessary but neglected interruptions. Fellowes' screenplay gives us more of the side players than some other versions (or perhaps it only seems that way because the central relationship is so weak), and while it allows for some forgotten moments and overlooked characters to get some more attention, we are only left wondering if there really is more to Tybalt (Ed Westwick) than the means to an obstacle or to Mercutio (Christian Cooke) than some jokes (including an infamously groan-worthy pun at an unlikely moment) and a reason to set the whole, tragic affair in motion.

With Romeo & Juliet, Carlei has at least given the actors a fine series of stages upon which to play. The movie was shot on location across Italy (including fair Verona, where the play is set), and we're frequently tempted to observe the mosaic behind Juliet on her balcony or the massive fresco of mankind's suffering while the Heavens look down in apathy that surrounds Romeo when he hears the right news from the wrong person. There's something incredibly disheartening in that temptation.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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