“Romeo & Juliet” is well worth seeing for the gorgeous settings, beautiful costumes (1490-1520 era), handsome actors, and brutal, brawling swordfights (none of your fancy-nancy “fencing”, here--). Listening to, well, not so much.
Cramming the play’s action into 118 minutes requires ruthless cutting of the script, especially to accommodate the action scenes. This has certainly been done, with the script cut to the bone in every scene and speech. The only scenes that survived mostly intact were the balcony scene, and Romeo and Juliet’s bedroom scene. I had been alerted to the likelihood of further issues by the BBC article, which quoted Mr. Fellows as saying: "When people say we should have filmed the original, I don't attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on.
"I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare's language choices."
Now, I’ll admit that I have studied Shakespeare at a college level, seen all the plays I possibly could, and acted in four of them, but I think this is just plain wrong. Shakespeare had to write, not just for the lords, but for the commoners as well. Of course, there’s action for the groundlings, but they had to understand the speech to follow along as well. And no one then could have been expected to understand Shakespeare’s speech without thought: he made up new words*, coined phrases, punned, and took wholesale poetic license with usage and word order. There are plenty of people today who go to Shakespeare performances with no special training, who understand and enjoy the original language. One expects to have to pay attention, but that allows one to understand meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases from context.
Besides surgically dissecting the skeleton of the play out of the text, Fellows also changed words, with some replacements sounding clunky coming from the period-looking characters, and some changes just apparently pointless. For example, when Capulet says to Paris, “Let two more summers wither in their pride, ere we may think her ripe to be a bride,” Fellows changes it to ““Let two more summers wither in their pride, ere we may think her ripe to be a WIFE.” Surely Fellows isn’t suggesting modern audiences don’t understand the word “bride.” Instead, he is killing the rhyme that occurs in in this speech, which is part of a concerted effort to modernize the script by cutting the music out of the text.
The Times review characterized the principals' performance as lacking passion, and I am inclined to agree. Romeo and Juliet get lots of kissing in, which apparently director Carlo Carlei thinks is indicative of passion. However, the frequently tepid reading of the lines doesn’t give the kissing enough foundation to make up the difference. In addition, in the first half of the film, Hailee Steinfeld (Juliet), rushes murmurously through her lines, which makes most of them seem thrown away. It’s only in the second half, when she has things to cry and shout about, that her enunciation acquires some bite. Also, while girlishly cute, she's just not beautiful. Rosaline (Nathalie Rapti Gomez), who actually gets some screen time and lines in this adaptation, is closer to actual beauty in my opinion.
Douglas Booth is an adequate but low-keyed Romeo. The pair are well supported by Christian Cooke as Mercutio, in the film, a Montague cousin; and Ed Westwick as a suitably glowering and growling Tybalt. Kodi-Smit McPhee is a curious choice to play Benvolio, who is the Montague’s voice of reason and usually older than Romeo. McPhee is a boy compared to the other men, and, although he does his best, just lacks the gravitas for the part.
Veteran actors fill in the older characters. Lesley Manville was good as the Nurse, although most of the character’s best bits were cut. Paul Giamatti puts a lot into Friar Lawrence, building up a good rapport with Romeo and Juliet. Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet was the one player singled out by the New York Times as “outstanding”: “Mr. Lewis persuasively plays the fool when need be, only to rise up in a foaming rage. . ..” In our opinion there was too much fool, and too little rage.
So, in sum, if you are a Shakespeare fan, see it for the eye candy, but don’t expect either a full reading of the play, or an exciting one.
*If I recall correctly, Shakespeare still holds the Oxford English Dictionary record for most new words appearing in his writings.
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