John Ott is a writer, filmmaker and founder of the website Making the Movie. You should follow him on Twitter here, Google+ here or Facebook here.
Thanks to Duane for letting me nerd out a bit more on the Shakespeare side than I would for my usual film reviews on Making the Movie.
Every generation has its cinematic Romeo and Juliet. There are some still alive who, in 1936, saw 34-year-old Norma Shearer’s Juliet embrace 43-year-old Leslie Howard’s Romeo on the big screen. It was the 1968 version, directed by Italian impresario Franco Zeffirelli, that I watched in Junior High, on one of those rolly-cart televisions, when I first studied the play. Then my generation’s entry came: the Baz Luhrmann-directed Romeo + Juliet (1996), the old text slung at great velocity into the modern, operatic setting of “Verona Beach.”
Now, for better or for worse, we have this generation’s entry: Romeo & Juliet directed by another Italian, Carlo Carlei (Daredevil, I Am Legend) and adapted by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey). If you don’t want to read spoilers — and by spoilers, I mean how it was adapted, not the story, which I will assume you know — then let me just state my opinion of the film broadly. I feel bad for this generation.
Now, the details — or shall I say, little atomies? Three lines into the film, a Shakespeare fan will notice that Fellowes and his collaborators have made a bold choice: to completely change some dialogue. I’m not talking about traditional dramaturgy, where scenes are omitted or lines moved between characters or archaic words and phrases modernized — though this film does all that too. I’m talking about re-writing Shakespeare.
I know, some of you traditionalists are probably spitting bile right now. But the kicker is, according to the press notes for the film, Fellowes and producer Ileen Maisel “wanted to give the modern audience a traditional, romantic version of the story.” (Setting aside the idea there is a version of Romeo and Juliet that is somehow not romantic…) The key word is “traditional” — and there’s the rub. While perhaps most would agree that an Italian setting and medieval costumes are acceptably traditional, only during the Restoration was it traditional to re-write the Bard. (And how did that work out for them? Quick show of hands. How many of you have seen The Enchanted Isle? How many The Tempest?)
But stay, there is a secondary goal the filmmakers had. Fellowes continues: “we also wanted to make it accessible and new.” So that’s why the text is changed, a determination “not to exclude” the “young audience”. Let us examine how they did.
How much of the text is changed? On a recent radio program, he estimated that only 20% of the text has changed, which — not having the play memorized myself — sounds about right. But what a 20%. And most of the changes are on the order of simplifying elaborate metaphors… you know, the poetry.
Fellowes is a clever writer, and his alterations are in the spirit of the original play. Most of them will pass unnoticed by those who haven’t studied the text. A few of them are conspicuously out of tune, as when Romeo tells the Friar “intentions pave the road to Hell” or Juliet “if your heart like mine is full then tell the joy that ‘waits us this night.” The super-famous lines are left intact, near as I could gather, with all the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘wherefores’. I was baffled, frankly, by what didn’t change. Surely it offends modern sensibilities to have Juliet compared to the jewel that hangs on an Ethiope’s ear. And why reproduce the extended, culturally outmoded wordplay about palmers and pilgrims but change “utters” to “issues” in the Apothecary’s line Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua’s law / Is death to any he that utters them.?
In other words, Fellowes and his collaborators are like the second suitor in Merchant of Venice who chooses silver over gold. In compromising, they bungle both goals of being traditional and accessible. (For those keeping score at home, the Lead Casket option — jettisoning Shakespeare’s text altogether — was the correct answer. See West Side Story — or, more recently, Warm Bodies.)
As any Shakespeare-lover can tell you, accessibility is the job of the actors and the director. In the recent BBC/PBS version of Richard II (Part I of The Hollow Crown) actor Ben Whishaw and director Rupert Goold brilliantly brought forward the messiah complex of the title character through performance, camera angles, costumes and set decoration. You could watch the film with the sound off and understand it perfectly. (But you never would because dang, that Shakespeare guy could write!)
So how did Carlei, his crew, and his actors fare? They did okay. Douglas Booth (“Romeo”) is actually a decent actor, much better than you expect from a guy who looks like a male model. I liked him more than the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld (“Juliet”), who strikes me much the same way Clare Danes did: a bit gawky and uncomfortable with the language. (Sorry, but Olivia Hussey is still the only Juliet on film I believe Romeo would fall for instantly.) The chemistry between them was never allowed to build much erotic charge, since they were blocked to speak to each other and kiss almost immediately in every scene they shared together.
Of the supporting players, I would single out Damian Lewis (“Lord Capulet”), Natascha McElhone (“Lady Capulet”) and Kodi Smit-Mcphee (“Benvolio”) as particularly good. Some of the bigger names, like Paul Giamatti (“Friar Laurence”) and Stellan Skarsgard (“Prince Escalus”) I could take or leave. Lesley Manville does what she can with a “Nurse” who has most of her funny lines cut.
As far as Carlei & company’s handling of the visuals, I liked the handsome, detailed art direction of the film, but found the lighting over-wrought. It looks like a perfume commercial, or the cover of a bodice-ripper come to life. (This may be no accident, since the film was funded in part by the Swarovski family’s entertainment arm, they of the crystal curtain at the Academy Awards.) It wouldn’t have been so bad, but the score, by Abel Korzeniowski, insists on underlining every kiss with a swell of syrupy violins.
If you had any doubt that this was a movie to appeal to young women over young men, you need only look at the short and perfunctory sword fights, which display little in the way of imaginative choreography or visceral thrills. The love scenes are innocent and chaste, without a whiff of adolescent hormones.
The movie chooses one “tradition” that may irk purists, popularized, according to my research, by David Garrick’s 19th Century version of the play. In this version, Juliet awakens after Romeo has ingested the poison but before he has died. Thus the lovers are allowed to share a final moment before they shuffle off their mortal coils. This might’ve even seemed like an innovation — if we hadn’t just seen it in the Baz Luhrmann/Craig Pearce version.
Of all the adjustments, I was not a fan of how the film removed Shakespeare’s ironies surrounding Friar John’s inability to deliver Friar Laurence’s letter and instead replaced it with a bit of PR for the church. I can only guess the filmmakers felt a mention of the plague didn’t fit in their glossy, romantic world.
But, at the end of the day, this story — which was itself adapted by Shakespeare from a centuries-old tradition — can withstand much more than a few well-intentioned-but-misguided filmmakers have thrown at it (Cf. Gnomeo & Juliet which does the story with garden gnomes, Elton John songs and a happy ending). Even in my cynical Los Angeles press screening, there were a few tears at the end. (Not mine, I only cry tears that are earned. And also at most Nic Cage performances.)
I try to judge filmmakers by their own goals. In my opinion, this film’s approach does not find the right balance of “traditional” and “accessible” — but do you, fellow Shakespeare geeks, disagree? Or are those goals simply mutually exclusive? And what would a faithful version consist of? Most film versions of the story, including Zeffirelli’s, have only used one third of the lines Shakespeare wrote. Will we ever see a film version that, like Branagh’s Hamlet, seeks to do justice to a complete text? I am eagerly awaiting the next generation’s answers.