The latest adaptation of Romeo and Juliet gives us a traditional retelling of the well-known tale of passionate lovers... minus the passion. Somehow the film turns a forbidden love story, which is inherently exciting, into a rather bland and unmemorable take on Shakespeare's play. Lacking the intensity that the story calls for, this version of Romeo and Juliet fails to excite.
Assuming that the audience knows the play well enough, the film follows two youngsters, Romeo (Douglas Booth) and Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), who are destined to never be together because of their feuding families, and explains little else. Director Carlo Carlei (The Flight of the Innocent) wants us to believe in their whirlwind romance, but the film is never able to successfully pull the audience into the supposedly heart-wrenching tale because of the lack of chemistry between Booth and Steinfeld. Steinfeld has difficulty pulling off Shakespeare's prose, Booth comes off as a neurotic boy-band heartthrob who speaks the dialogue well but doesn't seem to know what he's saying, and the both of them together play the part of star-crossed lovers, but with a veil of insincerity. Disappointingly, the story, which is meant to sweep us off our feet and make us believe that these two strangers love each other enough to die for the other, leaves us wondering why they're even together in the first place.
The restrained, and often times awkward romance is further watered down by screenwriter Julian Fellowes' (Downton Abbey) decision to streamline the dialogue and Carlei's lukewarm take on the tale. The intention was to stay faithful to the original Romeo and Juliet — like Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation did — and at the same time be as fresh as Baz Luhrmann's version with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio (so as to be hip with the younger generation), but instead it comes off as a dumbed-down take of the classic story.
While the film's leads lack chemistry, its older, supporting cast excels. With the likes of Paul Giamatti (Friar Laurence) and Homeland's Damian Lewis (Lord Capulet) — two actors who have had their fair share of experience with Shakespeare — gracing the cast with their dominating performances, the gap between the actors who have come ready to do Shakespeare's words justice, and those who have not, is quite clear. Save for Kodi Smit-McPhee's (The Road) endearing take on Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, the strongest performances generally come from the older cast members.
As for the scenery, Carlei chose to film the movie where it was set: Verona and Mantua. Unfortunately, the background is oftentimes so beautiful that it distracts from the acting, which truth be told, is probably not something to brag about.
With a new adaptation on our hands, it’s a shame that it doesn’t stand out from the rest. Yes, every generation deserves its own Romeo and Juliet, but if we have to wait almost two decades to see it, it better be worth the wait.