Professor Lyle Smith of Biola University once said in a class that Romeo and Juliet almost get it right. Most fans or critics fall off their respective sides of blind devotion to the story or disenchanted skepticism that such love could ever even pretend to happen. I take Shakespeare as careful and sincere: the romance almost truly works, and despite the protagonists’ fall it is one of the most hopeful tragedies. The weight of Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy is predicated on the gravitas of the romance, and the one does not exist without the other. It is very difficult to get the romance and the tragedy right so that a production has serious feeling.
The latest offering in limited release starting today fares no better than most. This production caught my eye with the early announcement that Hailee Steinfeld of 2010 True Grit magnificence had been cast as Juliet. This did not appear to be a glib or obvious choice and boded well for a thoughtful production. How she as a handsome Juliet would play against the all-too-pretty Douglas Booth as Romeo was intriguing.
Indeed, there are aspects of this production that are commendable: The scale of the story, shot on location in Italy, was as big as a movie could and should make it. If you only watch Downton Abbey “for the costumes” this show is pleasing to the eye in many ways. Kodi Smit-McPhee upstages all comers as Benvolio, and indeed should have been cast as Romeo. This rendition refreshingly attends to parts of the play many productions typically exclude—the Prince’s role is foregrounded, and Friar Lawrence’s appearance in the crypt has unusual bearing.
Alas what positives exist are overwhelmed by critical decisions unpalatable to anyone who likes their Shakespeare neat.
Julian Fellowes’ screenplay is disastrous given his inability to resist improving the source. Shakespeare’s poetry is subsumed into yet another costume drama where we should look but not listen. If you do listen, this is Romeo and Juliet no fear Shakespeare that smoothes over the language with the subtlety of a road grader. Perhaps half of Shakespeare’s lines are dubbed by Fellowes’ bad impression.
The delicious supporting roles of Mercutio and Nurse also fall prey and are recast most bizarrely as serious. Paul Giamatti as Father (no, really) Lawrence is flat. The scale of the spectacle is pervasively dominated by close-ups of our crossed stars—perhaps the most flagrant problem in what amounts to almost total lack of perspective.
Little commercial consequence will come of these creative decisions. The target audience is clearly those more susceptible to taglines such as “THE MOST DANGEROUS LOVE STORY EVER TOLD” and #ForbiddenLove and Juliet’s Homecoming Guide (no, no, really). Creative decisions were driven by how early and often gratuitous snogging might feature. (I don’t know what book Romeo was kissing by, but it wasn’t the gospel.) This production is unambiguously counting on some Danes-DiCaprio-esque love effect for its commercial viability. It’s going to need something, because awards season will not bring success.
And for those who care about Shakespeare as popular and high art, this film needs to succeed. Thankfully executive producers with significant capital still regularly risk new attempts at Shakespeare. Some are schlock. Some are daring failures. Every so often we get a profound film. All such ventures need a chance of making money. In this case someone else will need to try.
Fr Micah Snell teaches in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. He is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts.