True story: My group of intrepid moviegoers went into theater 14 at The Carolina at 11:45 a.m. on Friday to see this latest version of Mr. Shakespeare’s famous romantic tragedy. When we finally exited the auditorium, my first question was, “It is Saturday now, isn’t it?” One of my companions countered, “No, I think it’s Sunday.” This is the power of Carlo Carlei’s Romeo & Juliet. It makes a mere two hours feel like two full days. I do not for a moment deny that this is a notable accomplishment. At the same time, I doubt it could be called a desirable one — and yet it is probably the film’s greatest achievement. It is not, however, the film’s sole claim to a certain malodorous quality.
I don’t care all that much that screenwriter Julian Fellowes has taken a crack at “improving” the play’s dialogue — even to the extent of such dubious additions as, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and, “My back is killing me.” This, after all, is something like the Classics Illustrated comic-book version of the play, so reducing the dialogue to a point where it might comfortably fit inside cartoon balloons makes a kind of perverse sense. It would make more sense, perhaps, if the film was actually radical in its approach, but that ampersand in the title is about as wild as this version gets. This is really pretty namby-pamby stuff that wants us to think it’s the Bard’s whiskers of fealty. In truth, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) is probably more respectful of the text, being content to merely cut and rearrange rather than dumb it down.
I should probably admit that Shakespeare’s yarn about these two rash teenagers whose hormonal urges get the better of them is not high on my list of his plays. Still, there are ways to present it and make it work. Whether it’s approached with the stodgy reverence of George Cukor’s 1936 version, the picture book sensibility of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 approach, or the giddy romanticism of Luhrmann’s radicalized take, what it absolutely has to do is make us care about the title characters. We know going in that this can only end badly — and if by some miracle we don’t, the play tells us straight off, “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” — so the production is going to live or die on how we feel about them. And this is one thing this latest attempt fails at miserably. Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) is just plain dull, and Romeo (Douglas Booth) is little more than pouty male-model window dressing. Both come across like they’re too impressed with having memorized the dialogue to worry about feeling it. Whatever one thinks about Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Luhrmann’s film, they tap into the full emotionalism of the characters. This latest pair are like animatronic figures at a Disney World attraction.
A certain amount of praise has been heaped on Paul Giamatti’s Friar Lawrence and Lesley Manville’s performance as Juliet’s nurse. I’m not sure it’s so much deserved as it’s simply they’re livelier than the leads. Whose fault is all this? Well, probably everyone’s, but director Carlo Carlei (just because he’s Italian doesn’t mean he’s Zeffirelli), a man whose main claim to fame seems to be an 18-year-old movie in which Matthew Modine is reincarnated as a dog, is probably the most culpable. He may have all these authentic Verona settings (though I doubt the balcony from the famous scene is in reality festooned with dimestore greenery), but he has zero feeling for the story itself. It just drones on and on and on — ending up, I suppose, as a safe movie version English teachers can show in classrooms to make sure that students never pick up Shakespeare again. I was merely relieved that afterwards I could wander down the hall to see Machete Kills. If only the two could have been combined as Machete Kills Romeo & Juliet, then we might have something. At least I now understand why the studio wouldn’t set up a press screening. Oh my. Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Regal Biltmore Grande