Just enough of this latest interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic is appealing — the attractive main characters, cinematography, opulent production design, some supporting performances — as to make its debits all the more lamentable.
Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s words are often lost amidst the swells of impassioned music, the sound of a sculptor’s chisel or other ambient noise, and impatient readings.
Director Carlos Carlei is also lost here, unable to guide his actors and help them reach for the wit and depth of the play. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Douglas Booth (Great Expectations) as Juliet and her Romeo are earnest and lovely to look at. But that earnestness doesn't translate into wonder or depth of feeling. Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl) plays Juliet's cousin Tybalt so perpetually ill tempered as to be comical. With his wild mane of black hair and growling pronouncements of import, he's better suited to battling Kate Beckinsale in one of the cheesy Underworld films. Similarly, too many scenes with Damian Lewis (Homeland, playing Juliet’s father, and who played Romeo on the stage nearly 20 years ago) provoke bursts laughter at his look-at-me choices.
The screenplay by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey) is streamlined to a fault, giving this adaptation a hurried pace. The result is a romance that seems, even at nearly two hours in length, in a rush to hit its beats and arrive at the mournful conclusion.
Paul Giamatti is, as you might have expected the best part of the movie, acting so fully and expertly that the words can be understood by modern ears unaccustomed to the vocabulary and sentence structure of Shakespeare's works. And Carlei does compose some gorgeous if kitschy images, particularly at the end.
As the lovers, Steinfeld and Booth convey a passionate yearning such that the end is tinged with the requisite sorrow. Steinfeld radiates sweetness and her loveliness is undeniable. But Booth is even more striking as a young man whose English accent, flawless bone structure and waves of dark hair combine to create a swoon-worthy figure of near perfection. Romeo and Juliet is a date movie, but gentlemen be warned: Your girl is likely to fall in love with someone else for two hours.