Stilted Shakespeare

“Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene.” You know how the rest of the story goes: rival families, star-crossed teenaged lovers, confusion, banishment, and finally, death. On the surface, Carlo Carlei’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet seems to live up to grandeur of its source material. The period costumes are beautiful. The two pouty-lipped leads are gorgeous. The Italian locations are stunning. Unfortunately, that is where the film’s splendor ends.

Carlei’s period-piece interpretation of Shakespeare is in stark contrast to the recent trend seen in other recent Shakespeare adaptations such as Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2013) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Both of these films use modern-day settings to reach out to their audiences, but they manage to accomplish very different goals from each other and from Carlei’s film. Whedon’s crisp and casual Much Ado About Nothing merged modern style with Shakespearean language in a way that was seamless, making the dialogue seem as though they were conversations you could hear walking down the street. Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, on the other hand, created a discord from the combination of Shakespearean dialogue and a modern-day setting that was simultaneously jarring and captivating. In both cases, the filmmakers succeeded in finding the moments in the text that address crises of identity, love, and envy—matters that remain relevant and resonant to today’s audiences—and in bringing them to the foreground. They rejuvenated what could have been just old stories  with funny-sounding language and and proved them to be timeless and relateable.

Sadly, the moments when Carlei’s adaptation could be moving and resonant to modern moviegoers are in fact, the worst. A large part of the problem is that the lead actors do not seem capable of properly handling the complexities of Elizabethan English. Hailee Steinfeld, whose performance in 2010’s True Grit proved her talent and earned her an Academy Award nomination, is a disappointing Juliet, as she is seemingly overwhelmed by the material. Douglas Booth, who plays Romeo, is generally more successful than Steinfeld in his performance but fails to consistently carry the weight of the drama’s heavier moments.

Thankfully, a few supporting performances stand out. In particular, Christian Cooke (Mercutio), Paul Giamatti (Friar Lawrence), and Lesley Manville (Nurse) give excellent performances; their delivery is smooth, unwavering, and emotive in all the ways that the execution of the titular pair falters. Unfortunately, these supporting characters are just that—supporting—and as such, they cannot save the lack of chemistry between Booth and Stienfeld. Consequently, the scenes that are supposed to make the audience feel something—passion, intimacy, or sadness—only made me squirm in my seat.

However, the blame for this awkwardness should not completely fall on the actors: the screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, deserves culpability as well. Fellowes alters and adds to the Bard’s text with his own original scenes and made-up pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, and in so doing, he commits a crime worse than the actors’ flat delivery. His additions are clunky and over-complicated, and his dialogue does not sound natural today, nor would it have in Shakespeare’s time. There is nothing inherently wrong in taking liberties with a play or book when adapting it for the big screen; directors and screenwriters commonly remove, add, or liberally interpret some material here and there to ensure that the story translates well and says something new to contemporary audiences. However, Shakespeare’s plays are written in such a particular and rich style that most writers today simply cannot replicate it well. When not done well, such additions are glaringly faulty.

In other adaptations, rather than changing the text, directors have used the editing, setting, cinematography, and sound design to better translate certain scenes and emotions from the page to the screen. Carlei tries to restore the emotional impact where it is non-existent by relying on sweeping, saccharine music; cheesy slow motion techniques; and awkward close ups but is unsuccessful also in these attempts. These moments have very little narrative or stylistic precedent or justification, and the editing is haphazard in a way that ends up rendering the fairly familiar story strangely confusing. Where there should be energy or passion, there is none. Where the film should sizzle, it sputters out.

It makes sense that movie directors would want to adapt Shakespeare’s plays. With their archaic and dense language yet completely relevant themes, they present a challenge to the modern day filmmaker: a successful adaptation could lead not only to a sense of well-deserved self-accomplishment for a director, but also to career changing acclaim. Romeo and Juliet will not be that film for Carlei. Instead of investing completely in the visuals, Carlei should have put more emphasis on what would resonate with his audience. Hopefully, future directors will use this film as an example of how not to adapt Shakespeare.

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