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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet

Or: “What he’s done to Shakespeare/ Booth did to Lincoln”

The best Romeo and Juliet’s I’ve seen made me so breathless, so caught up in the poetry of the moment that I forgot the tragedy that was coming. Lesser productions at least proffered the pleasure of watching each fatal decision unwind towards a stageful of corpses. And there were the bad productions that just left me annoyed and terse but still pleased to hear those lovely, deadly words. THIS travesty upon our public screens was of a previously unknown fourth kind: where I longed for the end to come so I could see these butchers of text and wasters of time get their just rewards.

I will admit the film is filled with lovely italian light, grand italian towns, sumptuous italian dress and the occasional sword fight, but the soul is gone from the piece. This is supposed to be a story of passion, of breathless thinking, of language so swift in pulls the tongue behind it. Carlei has left beside the text, and the urgency, and has instead crammed his work with cheap romantic tropes and a smorgasbord of snogging (chaste snogging, dog snogging, french snogging, corpse snogging, etc) in hopes that quantity of romance will make up for quality of same.

The deepest cut the film gives is by the writer, Julian Fellows, a man of usually sterling wit and sense when it comes to period pieces. For some unknown reason he has here decided to take Shakespeare and Change The Script. In seeking to “clarify” the story for the modern ear, and add dialog to referenced scenes he often falls back on a half formed shakespearian speech, with no greater poetry or resonance than any other drama cooked up last year you’d find at your local cinema. He’s kept the memorable speeches, found space for a lot of the cut material, and has added an occasional twist of ingenuity, bless his heart, but a patched robe does not become royalty, and we shake our head in folly at his arrogance, that he could not leave good enough alone.

Not that the language matters much here, since even pure metal of the original text would be come base and vile when mumbled through the mouth of this cast. I wondered if, to save on paycheck costs, Carlei had performed some dark act of necromancy: sneaking into the hollywood morgue and animating the stiff corpses of pretty people to shamble about his sets. That may be a little exaggerated, but what else am I to conjecture from such bloodless performances; they mouth Fellows lines, the pure and the adulterated, with no more understanding than if they were saying it in Mandarin.

Our Romeo, (Douglas Booth) is by far the worst offender. Painted as the ideal man (an artist and a gentleman, chiseled while he’s chiseling) Booth does nothing but go about, his mouth hanging open like a guppy, either smiling in a self-satisfied matter, trembling with rage/desire/fear and (you guessed it) snogging. He also has a tendency to let his hands rest on unfortunate parts of his own anatomy (and other people’s besides). Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) does a mite better, or at least gifts us with more expressions than you can count on one hand (unlike her co-star). After her triumph in True Grit I greatly anticipated the fire and wit Steinfeld would bring to Juliet, that most lively of gels. Alas, smothered in silks and satins, and dangling between the twisting text and Fellow’s awkward amalgamation, her spark is snuffed and her misery meets only cold indifference this side of the screen. This reviewer wishes her well on future projects, but will crow from the rooftops (or sneer in parlors, or scribble on the internet, whatever) that she is no Christine Albright, and she never will be.

Yet there is one vital man among the hoards of living dead, one experienced shakespearian amongst the mumblers, one bright star in a polluted firmament: Paul Giamatti. As Friar Lawrence he reminds us depth of feeling this play is supposed to quicken in us. His wry eyebrowing at the young lovers haste, his panic as his plans run awry and his heartbreaking sorrow at the end of the action almost make the two hours bearable.

The most apt metaphor to describe the film’s failure comes from the film itself. Of the many, many stabbings that occur throughout the action not one of the blades penetrate any deeper than an inch or three.** So it is in the film: no one goes All the Way to the Hilt: not the writer, not the actors (Giamatti being the welcome exception), not the composer, any of the designers, nor the director. None of them trusted Shakespeare to run the four hundred story through our hearts, but chose instead to halfheartedly needle us, leaving us in pain and incerdibly irritated.

Not recommended.

Subtitle Lifted lovingly from Mel Brooks’s The Producers

** Academic Addendum: In real life, an inch or three of sharp steel is all that’s necessary to dispatch someone, and its devilish hard to actually apply the force necessary to drive a blade all the way through muscle and various organs. Don’t ask me how I know this.

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