Viewers who go into “Romeo & Juliet” cold may be forgiven for coming away thinking Shakespeare was a really lousy writer.
After all, this latest screen version has lines that go thud every minute, such as “We shall take action when we may and strike while the iron is hot!” Or this novel gem: “The best intentions pave the way to hell.” But Shakespeare didn’t write those lines. Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) did, and what he does to Shakespeare in this film, no writer should do to any writer – not even to Julian Fellowes.
He capriciously rewrites dialogue, invariably replacing four concise words with 10 clumsy ones. He takes funny scenes and makes them labored and turns romantic scenes passionless. He changes character motivations, adds new scenes that are dumb and indulges in the worst aping of Shakespeare with no feeling for the spirit or music of the original. Rarely do two lines go by without Fellowes changing something,.
The result is an adaptation representing the worst of both worlds, neither authentic Shakespeare nor a wholesale update of the language, but rather mangled Shakespeare mixed with stilted, clumsy fake Shakespeare.
The problems of Fellowes’ adaptation are compounded by director Carlo Carlei, who doesn’t shape scenes. He doesn’t know what to emphasize and what to toss off, and he doesn’t probe the characters’ emotions.
Potentially grand cinematic moments, such as the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, lie flat on the screen. Worst of all, Carlei has no idea what to do with Hailee Steinfeld, who is so lost in the role of Juliet that it’s shocking. If these are the takes that got in, one can only imagine what’s on the cutting-room floor.
Here’s the thing: Juliet is the great role in “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s her passion that propels the action, and if you don’t have a Juliet, you’re finished. And this is especially a shame because Douglas Booth as Romeo is quite good and could have been better, if only he had someone to play off of.
It’s almost pitiful to see him here, trying inject emotion and wit into his scenes with Steinfeld, who is a blank wall.