'Romeo and Juliet'
Of use primarily as a future classroom time-killer for teachers uncomfortable with the nudity in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation and wary of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 anachronistic spin, director Carlo Carlei’s “Romeo & Juliet” is a curiously flat, passionless take on Shakespeare’s oft-filmed tale of star-crossed lovers. Absent the youthful ardor that has made the play a rite of passage for generations of heartsick teens, this is a stuffy, old-fashioned production shot on distractingly spotless sets. It lumbers along in search of a reason to exist.
“Downton Abbey” scribe Julian Fellowes has taken a red pen to the text, in an abridgment that alternates between streamlining and butchery, sometimes during the same scene. But all the bold strokes and familiar beats are present and accounted for, as the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets spills out into these squeaky-clean streets of fair Verona. While crashing a costume ball, hotheaded young Romeo (Douglas Booth) falls head over heels for the innocent Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), and their forbidden romance spins inevitably towards tragedy.
But you’re not going to find much of a spark between these secret lovers. British TV actor Booth preens through the paces like a male model, typically content to let his bee-stung lips do the acting for him. (When things get bloody, he half-heartedly declares himself “fortune’s fool,” almost with a shrug.)
Steinfeld, who made such an indelible impression as the steel-backboned miniature spitfire in the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit”, is simply adrift here. She rushes through her lines as if trying to get them over with as quickly as possible — shocking considering how deftly she handled the Charles Portis tongue-twisters in her breakout picture. It’s not a good sign when the weakest scenes in “Romeo & Juliet” are the ones involving Romeo and Juliet.
Paul Giamatti fares the best as Friar Lawrence, aiding and abetting these crazy kids and their clandestine marriage with an impish twinkle and a bushy beard that would make the Boston Red Sox proud. Giamatti is alone in savoring Shakespeare’s poetry, effortlessly emphasizing the iambic pentameter while the rest of the cast flattens their dialogue into sometimes jarringly contemporary conversational rhythms. As the Prince of Verona, Stellan Skarsgard is upstaged by his unfortunate wig, and there’s a genuinely strange turn from “Homeland’s” Damian Lewis, playing Lord Capulet as a silly fop. This whole affair feels like much ado about nothing.