Stop me if you think you've heard this one before: two-star crossed lovers in fair Verona defy family and fate to be together, and ultimately suffer at the hands of both. He is hot-headed and emotionally overzealous, she is chaste and easily influenced but at the same time strong-willed. She will be married to someone else of her father's choosing, and their friends and relatives will fight with swords and verbal jabs, and a priest (shock!) will give them both some terrible advice. It's a tragedy. It doesn't end well.
Bingo to you if you correctly identified Romeo and Juliet. This new cinematic adaptation is by director Carlo Carlei (The Flight of the Innocent) and the lord of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes. As Romeo and Juliet remakes go, this one is the Romeo and Julietest. That is, it's about as straight a staging as you're likely to find. If you're the same age as the main characters, it will probably knock your socks off, much in the same way the Franco Zeffirelli version from 1968 wowed my 9th-grade English class, not to mention just about every other freshman student body for the last several decades. For old farts like me who have already seen the Zeffirelli or, perhaps more importantly, Baz Luhrmann's radical 1996 redo, Carlei's version will likely be of little interest. That doesn't mean it's bad, far from it. It's just a case of finding the audience intended.
Fellowes pretty much leaves the story alone, tightening up the first half of the play, and letting the back half run long. It's an imbalance that left me bored by plot's end, but given how expertly the film captures the adolescent mood swings that keeps the material feeling fresh to every new generation that stumbles upon it, I doubt that's a miscalculation. The lovers this time around are played by the age appropriate Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and a pillow-lipped Douglas Booth (LOL). The boys are styled to fit a certain shaggy CW model, and just to drive it home, Gossip Girl-veteran Ed Westwick has been recruited to play a particularly dastardly Tybalt, vying with a jockish Mercutio (Christian Cooke, Cemetery Junction). Their showdown is appropriately intense, even if some of Mercutio's sardonic humor is lost in order to make him a bruiser. Like all of Romeo and Juliet 2013, it works just fine. This is a movie that is well acted and well told. Costumes and sets look excellent, and Fellowes has managed to make the bulk of the movie work in the same walking-and-talking manner that has made Downton Abbey so popular (even if the Shakespeare doesn't allow for plot twists that turn entirely on eavesdropping).
I wish there was more to point to as a reason why I didn't care for this Romeo and Juliet production. It really is just that I'm old. I think the only actual complaint I have is sort of a backhanded compliment. Paul Giamatti is too good as Friar Laurence. His admonishing of Romeo for being an emo drama queen is so convincing, it ends up making no sense that he would then cook up the cockamamie scheme that (omg, spoiler!) leaves both teenagers dead. As a plot device, it makes no sense, particularly with the threats of Juliet's old man (Homeland's Damien Lewis) still ringing in our ears. If Juliet decides to jilt Paris (Tom Wisdom, 300), the only punishment she has to fear is exile. Well, Romeo is already in exile, and that would also be the outcome of faking her own death, so why go through all the trouble?
Whatever. It doesn't matter. At long last high school English teachers can send Leonard Whiting and (sigh) Olivia Hussey out to pasture. Romeo and Juliet 2013 will likely become the new go-to for the Shakespeare section in first-year curriculum. It's got actors that youngsters can identify with as well as a style their elders won't be offended by. Win-win.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.