There is a reason people continue to stage, film and adapt the plays of William Shakespeare (beyond a convenient lapse of copyright) – they’re good. They’re really very good. They possessed a relevance and power at the time of writing that remarkably persists up to today. The poetry still speaks to us and the blend of comedy and tragedy, while suited to a different mode of viewing to contemporary audiences, is still able to entertain and engage.
Naturally, then, the first instinct in dealing with Shakespeare is to stick to the text and change the setting, such as is done in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which kept Shakespeare’s dialogue but transported the play to a heady, pulpy Venice Beach-esque take on Verona. High octane and high energy, the film brought a new life and urgency to the material, demonstrating the universality of Shakespeare’s text.
Another instinct is to change the text and the setting – for Romeo and Juliet, we have West Side Story. For Hamlet, for example, we have Sons of Anarchy and The Lion King. This method extends credibility to the new setting – New Yorkers, bikies or lions spouting Elizabethan dialogue could be conceived of as one suspension of disbelief too far. The updated dialogue carries with it the familiar narrative, bringing us back to the universality of Shakespeare. This is high school level stuff but it’s an important grounding in adaptive methods. These tried and true methods remain effective because they lean on the text, which is the strongest part of the work and the biggest hook for audiences.
Why, then, would Carlo Carlei and Julian Fellowes give us the exact opposite – a film of Romeo and Juliet in which the setting remains a stuffy, stilted and staged Renaissance court, actually filmed and set in Verona, but the text is changed? In fact, if the text was changed that might in and of itself be interesting – but it isn’t consistently adapted. Instead, screenwriter Fellowes has kept tracts of Shakespeare’s dialogue and edited or rewritten others parts in the most illogical places. Mercutio’s fantastic Queen Mab monologue, a piece of spectacularly poetic and mad writing is cut short, losing some of its best parts, its greatest lines and much of the speech’s momentum.
Beyond the hamfisted editing, the new dialogue is not particularly good. It is purely functional and fails to justify its replacement of Shakespeare’s words, losing the rhythmic iambic pentameter and offering little in its place. There is perhaps an argument for non-metered prose giving credibility to the Renaissance setting, but much of the film still uses Shakespeare’s metered verse, making the argument void. Lines that read beautifully in Shakespeare’s work are rewritten with no apparent purpose – the sharp exchange between Benvolio and Mercutio – “By my head here come the Capulets”, “By my heel I care not”) is reduced to the oddly flat: “By heaven here come the Capulets”, “And do I care?”. Friar Lawrence’s famous “These violent delights have violent ends” inexplicably becomes “These violent passions have violent ends”. I could go on.
I’ll spare you a plot summary – it’s one of the most universally known and recognised stories and thus it gives adapters a double-edged sword: an instant audience familiarity and the challenging task of doing something new. Fellowes’ approach is not only flawed, it’s egotistical – the idea of adding to, or improving on, Shakespeare’s dialogue is an exercise in pride and fails on every count. There is plenty of value in editing the work – today’s audiences engage with theatre and film fundamentally differently to those of Shakespeare’s era. We can do without the “Previously on” passages of the plays, that recap the action for the more come-and-go Elizabethan audience. Characters can be condensed or cut, action can be kept to one locale, and there is much to be done to keep up momentum and pace. But rewriting dialogue in this way is unnecessary and adds nothing, serving only to put Fellowes’ name next to Shakespeare’s in the writing credits.
Furthermore, we gain subplots that are not really necessary, nor fleshed out enough to justify their presence. Fellowes is well known for his period ensemble dramas – Downton Abbey, Gosford Park – which always feature large casts and manifold plot lines. In the context of these works, Fellowes’ proclivity for sub plots works – in Gosford Park, the various intrigues add to the drama of the murder, providing red herrings and a rich tapestry of personalities. In Downton Abbey, it’s a question of class divide, and in its best, albeit rare, moments, gives a complexity and nuance to a whole household of characters trying to negotiate a fast-changing world.
In Romeo and Juliet, however, we are offered tiny snippets of the characters’ lives that only serve to confuse the plot and slow the pace, which is already problematic when attempting to condense a five act play into a three act, two hour film. It turns out that Benvolio has the hots for Rosaline. Lord and Lady Capulet have apparently had marital problems in the past – jealousies and infidelities that are mentioned so briefly in passing that one wonders why Fellowes even bothered.
And then there is the character of Rosaline – typically absent from the play, and for good reason. Rosaline stands as an invisible symbol for Romeo’s fickle nature and embodies a commentary on the rashness and superficiality of adolescence love, lust and obsession. Treatment of this issue is strongest when Rosaline is not present nor seen – the audience has no opportunity to attach to her, she becomes a figure of hearsay and an object of idolisation that is quickly passed over. Giving her a few (poorly written) lines and a momentary subplot with Benvolio doesn’t do her or the film any favours – perhaps a misguided attempt to grant the cast-aside character some agency, it is underdeveloped and weakens the impact of her rejection.
The question of agency is also problematic in this staging. Many contemporary workings of the play attempt to grapple with the misogynistic treatment of the women – Lady Capulet is ruled by her husband, Juliet is offered like property, and poor Rosaline doesn’t even rate a mention. Any adept director will address and grapple with this – you have to, in a post-feminist society. Carlei does not.
In Fellowes’ version Juliet remains as written, submissive and sans agency. The Renaissance setting prevents any overt feminist treatment, but this is not even used to draw attention to the gender politics of the time. This is paired with a very half-hearted performance from Hailee Steinfeld – the powerhouse of True Grit is entirely missing from this film, and Juliet becomes nothing more than a rote representation, a shadow of the character and her potential.
Douglas Booth is, in all honesty, dealt one of the worst hands by the original play – Romeo is a weak and frustrating character, hard to sympathise with and easily capable of alienating audiences. His Romeo reads as a mere sketch of the character, given the hallmarks of a romantic hero but nothing substantial to get us on his side. His performance works neither as a melodramatic over-interpretation of the role that highlights the ridiculous nature of the tragic plot; nor as an insular, relatable character that is victim to fate and ill-timing. Somewhere between the two, Booth loses us as an audience.
The film is populated by talented but misused actors – casting Paul Giamatti as the Friar Lawrence is a brilliant move, but he is given very little to do and comes across as a camp caricature of a Renaissance priest. Likewise Damian Lewis, sporting an awful haircut, suffers greatly at the hands of Fellowes’ “improvements”. Stellan Skarsgård is completely underused as the Prince, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, one of the better upcoming actors of the moment, becomes whiny and annoying as Benvolio. He also looks about twelve years old, running to Friar Lawrence as if he has been caught out past his bedtime, rather than rushing to save a friend from certain death.
Booth and Steinfeld make for very attractive leads, and are regularly shot as if in a fashion advertisement – slow motion turns, perfectly backlit, angelic and cherubic and framed to make the most of what are undoubtedly very nice cheekbones. Their relationship is, however, entirely uninteresting – they are worst done by the setting, and much of the immediacy and urgency of what should be a reckless, shotgun relationship is lost in the period trappings and puffy sleeves. This may have something to do with Swarovski’s involvement – this is their first outing as Swarovski Entertainment, and while there is no overt product placement it feels as though the film is perpetually setting itself up for it. Maybe if Romeo had given Juliet some killer bling, who knows, the whole tragedy could have been avoided.
It’s hard to determine how strongly to feel about this film – it’s inability to engage and it’s tendency to provoke genuine indifference from its audience would lean towards a more tepid reaction. But the filmmakers are working with, or as is often the case, not working with, a text that has lasted centuries, full of drama, tragedy, comedy and ultimately continuing to speak to our experiences today. The play, and the audience, deserve better.
The DVD release has no special features, although I would have loved to hear some more of Fellowes’ reasoning behind his approach. The transfer is adequate and successfully conveys the depth of the cinematic world created and the luxurious period setting and design. It’s a shame that depth is missing from the script and direction.