Not that I want to sound like a chauvinist or a dolt, but the wrong young, doomed lover utters the words "For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night" in the thunderously awful new Romeo and Juliet.
The line is Romeo's as Shakespeare quilled it, but in truth, fair reader, when the actor playing Romeo in Carlo Carlei's Classic Comics-style abridgment is prettier than the actress playing Juliet, well, there's the rub. (Sorry, wrong play.) In his Middle Ages tunics and tights, Douglas Booth looks like he just leapt from a Pre-Raphaelite canvas - full lips, soulful eyes, cheekbones to pierce the clouds, eyebrows like furry parentheses.
As for Hailee Steinfeld, the feisty cowgirl from True Grit, she is fair enough in the midnight blue velvet she wears to the Masked Ball, where first she and Romeo eyeball each other. And there's a round and girlish appeal to her, as she works her way through the tricky iambs, but she is no striking beauty, and Romeo's swooning soliloquies seem misplaced, somehow. (Look thee to Nathalie Rapti Gomez, who plays Rosaline, Lord Capulet's niece and Romeo's babe as the story begins!)
And speaking of tricky iambs, this Romeo and Juliet - set in Verona, and shot there, too, with its bricks and balustrades, its frescoes and fine light - has been chopped and diced by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey. There are chunks of Shakespeare's familiar verse, to be sure, but much has been hacked, and the language streamlined and modernized here and there. And unless I was dreaming, I could swear I heard Lesley Manville, who plays Juliet's faithful Nurse, declare, "My back is killing me." I spent hours and hours poring over my Excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet (yes, a first edition - I will soon be accepting bids), but to no avail. I could not find such a phrase.
I believe Carlei, Fellowes, and the film's many producers were hoping to conjure something like the spirit of youthful romance and period lushness on display in Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version, in which the teenage Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey assumed their star-crossed positions. But despite the costumes and jousting scenes and funny haircuts (especially Damian Lewis' Lord Capulet, Juliet's testy dad), this Romeo and Juliet is hard to take seriously - and simply hard to take. The music, which never stops, issues cyclones of Muzak-y flourishes, and Paul Giamatti, as the meddling Friar whose scheme to put Juliet in a deathlike coma turns this hormonal romp into tragedy, is, well, Giamatti-esque in ways that seem at odds with Booth and Steinfeld's straightforward ardor.
One of the major accomplishments, I think, of this Romeo and Juliet is that it makes Baz Luhrmann's 1996 contempo update - the one with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio and the plus-sign in its title - look like some kind of masterpiece.
Oh, my back, it doth kill me!
Romeo and Juliet *1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Carlo Carlei. With Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, and Lesley Manville. Distributed by Relativity Media.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parent’s guide: PG-13 (adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters