Shakespeare 450: Romeo & Juliet (2013) - DVD Review

2014 marks what would have been William Shakespeare's 450th birthday. In celebration of this (and being something of a Shakespeare nut) Ben intends to spend the year taking in as many Shakespeare films as he can - from old favourites to new interpretations and everything in between.

'almost universally regarded as one of the most perfectly crafted stories in human history, you have to get quite a lot of things wrong to ruin Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet'

When adapting what is almost universally regarded as one of the most perfectly crafted stories in human history, you have to get quite a lot of things wrong to ruin Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. And yet that is exactly what director Carlo Carlei and screenwriter Julian Fellowes - a man with several big screen writing credits to his name, but undoubtedly most famous these days as the creator of TV series Downton Abbey - spectacularly manage to do, making 2013’s version of Romeo & Juliet at best a disappointing waste of time, at worst an infuriating mess.

Admittedly there are a handful of features which redeem this from being utterly unwatchable. Paul Giamatti as Friar Lawrence is a welcome presence, crafting the character reliably well, and Lesley Manville as the Nurse also does well in making the character her own. Younger talents Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as the titular star-cross’d lovers never fare badly even if they fail to bring anything new to the roles. Carlei also manages to occasionally carve out moments here and there which work - Romeo and Juliet’s first stolen moments together at the Capulet ball are captured well by the director, and the famous balcony scene is somewhat satisfying in a sentimental and melodramatic sort of way.

These, however, are mere glimpses of the brilliance of Shakespeare’s story which is overwhelmingly defamed and deformed by the inflated ego and clumsy hand of Fellowes. The screenwriter spends the entire film unnecessarily messing with the Bard’s original script, not even making it through the infamous prologue without “improving” matters. Straight away, the story is unnecessarily altered to include a jousting tournament between the Montague and Capulet families arranged by the Prince of Verona (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd), dissipating much of the touchpaper atmosphere of the opening scenes and turning off pretty much every Shakespeare enthusiast in the process.

Fellowes’ decision to meddle with Shakespeare’s language feels both patronising and arrogant. In simplifying many of the speeches, much of the original poetry of the language is destroyed - constantly excruciating for any Shakespeare aficionado, but likely to irk even those unfamiliar with the original play. The new passages of Fellowes’ own creation - at times boorishly inserted into scenes, at others simply cut and pasted over Shakespeare’s own speeches - stand out with a painful lack of subtlety. The writer seems to be under the impression that he can match Shakespeare’s skill with language; it will be achingly plain to anyone in the audience with ears and a brain that he really, really can’t. At one point during one of Fellowes’ additions to the script, Mercutio (Christian Cooke) actually says to Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee) “Your mood is as moody as a bitch on heat”. Fellowes’ treatment of the play isn’t just bad, it’s downright insulting.

With such a rotten core in Fellowes’ screenplay, much of what else is on offer falls down around it. Carlei’s film regularly has an amateurish feel, choosing to put on a period performance of the play whilst adding absolutely nothing new to his version. Giamatti and Manville mentioned earlier are sadly in the minority as positives amongst the cast, with many here putting in limp, forgettable performances - Smit-McPhee miscast as Benvolio comes across as a total weed - or providing more ham than Sainsbury’s deli counter, with Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet being the principal offender. Carlei often lazily falls back on making the emotion of the piece unpalatably cheesy, especially when set to Abel Korzeniowski’s relentless score, seemingly made up of almost parodic levels of soaring strings about as subtle as a brick to the face.

Finally, almost as if he realises his film contains no good ideas of his own, Carlei borrows heavily from Luhrmann’s 1996 film in putting together the story’s climax. Perhaps the director hoped that some of the success of that earlier film would rub off onto his own. It doesn’t. The double-team of Carlei’s uninspired vision and Fellowes’ conceited “Downtonisation” of Shakespeare’s play makes 2013’s Romeo & Juliet comprehensively undeserving of your attention when there are far superior cinematic versions of the play worth watching instead.

Keep up to date with the Shakespeare 450 series so far.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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