Wherefore art thou, Romeo and Juliet? You're there, somewhere, among this handsome adaptation of William Shakespeare's oft-told tragic romance, penned by the celebrated, Oscar-winning writer also responsible for one of television's most popular British period soap-operas, Downton Abbey. Perhaps it should have been expected that a talent like Julian Fellowes would want to leave his imprint on a revitalization of the storied play, to give this era its own tweaked version that isn't just a rehash of Franco Zeffirelli's classical telling or reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann's hyper-stylized yet faithful version. With Fluke director Carlo Carlei at the helm and meticulous, streamlined yet unnecessary rephrases of the bard's dialogue (and a few key scenes) throughout, Fellowes' Romeo and Juliet ends up classical and gorgeous in appearance yet contorted and oddly hollow in its delivery, hindered by regrettable casting of the star-crossed lovers whom leave it in a dispassionate state.
Fueled by Swarovski's newly-created entertainment wing, the production deserves credit for filming the Shakespearean tragedy in and around Italy to reproduce the 1600s era, where the location's opulence goes a long way towards justifying the experience. Carlei captures the storied feud between the Capulets and Montagues within the dusty, practical walls of a fictionalized Verona, ideal for sword duels and galloping horses, while the budding romance between doomed lovers Romeo (Douglas Booth) and Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) trots among its naturally whimsical architecture. The glowing ballroom, crisp hedge maze, and stunning balcony covered in ivy and weatherworn stone are ideal for the play's secretive eruption of instantaneous love, shot with scope and steady-handed vigor by Revenge of the Sith's cinematographer David Tattersall that adores the meticulous yet unpretentious costume work. Under different circumstances, this artistic perspective could have effortlessly made for a stunning by-the-book film adaptation.
The bright spots in Romeo and Juliet's invigorating setting are spread much too thin, though, as it moves between disappointing decisions in script and direction, combining teenage soapiness with bland emulation of Shakespearean theatrics and a tempo similar to Downton Abbey. Fellowes' script knowingly tinkers with the bard's language for its methodical updating, trying to stay in-character with Shakespeare's styling while it canters between acts alongside consistent Renaissance music. Signature lines stay intact, a "Juliet is the sun" here and a "... cut him out into little stars" there, yet others are reworked into awkwardly stripped-down expressions, a strange sort of carte blanche taken with the content. Fellowes checks off the significant points from the play -- he even retains a few scenes abandoned in previous adaptations -- yet pointlessly reworks them into deliberate copies of the early-English rhythm, leaving one wondering what the purpose was for doing so.
Revamping Shakespeare only works if the key performances can back it up, and that's where Romeo and Juliet falters. Our leads rarely show the right flickers of authentic passion, desperation, or lamentation, where the chemistry between Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth doesn't ascend far beyond that of a high-school rendition. Steinfeld appears uncomfortable in Juliet's skin, almost like her spunky character from True Grit has been forced into medieval garb and told to behave; granted, a "plainer" and sprightly Juliet sounds appealing, but it doesn't play well off her beau here. Douglas Booth, despite being a handsome and photogenic devil who's heavily reminiscent of Leonard Whiting himself, can't muster the melancholy poeticism or charisma that befits Romeo. From the second they lock eyes during the ball, there's hardly any sparks; their kisses, caresses, and adoring glances never encapsulate the fiery longing their tale so desperately needs. These two, borrowing a few words from Paul Giamatti's Friar Laurence, don't appear to know anything about wanting to play "Satan's game" with one another.
Despite the inherent futility of their houses' quarrel, the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets suffers the same fate as Romeo and Juliet progresses, where forgettable wooden performances cause it to fizzle into uninteresting background noise. Carlei clumsily orchestrates the sword duels in ways best chalked up to human ineptitude, yet the flamboyant personalities from either side, Christian Cooke's Mercutio and Ed Westwick's persistently grumpy Tybalt, barely make an impact; that excludes one slow-motion scenes involving Tybalt and his Capulets stomping their way towards a brawl. It's up to the veteran actors to salvage what's there: Damian Lewis and Natascha McElhone bring the pressuring Capulet parents to life, while the innocence of Kodi Smit-McPhee that hallmarked the likes of Let Me In and The Road plays well as the unable peacekeeper Benvolio. In essence, some redeeming value can be found in everything but the central romance and the nondescript feud igniting around them.
Without the star-crossed lovers striking a chord, however, Romeo and Juliet sluggishly inches towards its tragic climax, and even that doesn't come away unscathed; the awkward blend of Shakespearean language and Fellowes' unnecessary revisionism strikes again. There should be this enormity, this swell of emotion and hazard in the air amidst a scheme that might afford them a life together, yet despite a twist in Shakespeare's original text that could heighten the emotionality, director Carlo Carlei can't muster the heartbreaking potency needed. Despite Giamatti's quietly show-stealing performance as Father Laurence, expressing his care in unconventional ways as an unsung would-be liberator, it ends with a thud that one would unfortunately expect from their absence of magnetism. Perhaps this lackluster misfire will lead befuddled newbies in the direction of more lyrical and fiery cinematic adaptations, so they might discover a superior tale of Juliet and her Romeo.
Video and Audio:
Boy, does Romeo and Juliet shine on Blu-ray, though. Carlo Carlei and David Tattersall went digital for their rendering of Shakespeare's classic romantic tragedy, capturing the stone pillars, the subtly ornate costumes, and the adoring close-ups at a 2.35:1 scope, preserved in Fox's elegant 1080p AVC transfer. The setting opens up more opportunities to show off earthy textures than expected, from the density of stacked bricks to vine overgrowth on the balcony and the sandy windswept texture on stone, while the photography that deliberately lingers on outstretched vistas during horse-riding sequences look astounding. Gradation of color in natural skin tones and in the succulent wardrobes responds exceptionally well to shifts in lighting, projecting vivid yet aware shades of burnt orange, emerald green, and midnight blue at all points, as well as the elegant sheen of metal in jewelry and sword blades. If there's a negative to be had, really, it's the slightly noisy and blueish-hued black levels that crop up at points that could very well derive from the source itself. Outside of that, it's gorgeous film that looks it on Blu-ray, all the way down to the doe-eyed, flowing-hair close-ups between the two lovers.
There's plenty to admire in the ample, responsive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio treatment as well: the clanking of blades, the chipping of stone in a sculptor's workshop, and the fierce galloping of horses adorn just the first five or six minutes of the soundtrack, all of which are clear and strong across the sound stage. Slight effects, like the shuffling of feet and the rattle of chains, remain firm and insistently audible, very clear and atmospheric. While the surround activity probably wasn't as frequent as it could've been, mostly limited to Abel Korzeniowski's score, there were several instances of activity that traveled from the back to the front, and vice versa, along with ambient effects that enhanced the surround stage. Where the sonic integrity falters a bit is with dialogue, where the quieter-spoken, rapid mumbles of conversation -- frequent in the communications between Romeo and Juliet -- can be a test to the ears for audibility, even if the mid-range response for their vocals sounds nice. By and large, it's a winner.
Clocking in right at about thirteen minutes, a series of Making Of press-kit snippets paint a very quick, concise portrait of constructing the film. While the material quickly bounces around between topics, it does linger long enough on a few things to be noteworthy: Cast and Crew (3:15, 16x9 HD) showcases a bit of Hailee Steinfeld's experiences in shooting through the Italian locale; The Filmmaker's Vision (3:51, 16x9 HD) features a few moments of Julian Fellowes discussing his stripped-down modification of the play; Creating the Look (3:39, 16x9 HD) offers a glimpse at the Italian tailors creating the garments for the film; and Hair and Makeup (2:16, 16x9 HD) tackles the joy in stylizing for this period. Featuring blink-and-you'll-miss-'em interviews and behind-the-scenes shots, it's a speedy trip through the crafting of the film that's faintly insightful.
A Theatrical Trailer (2:26, 16x9 HD) has also been included, the one that initially got me hooked on the film's potential. Also, there's the now-customary Digital HD Download slip.
Welcome performances from the elder supporting cast, stunning photography through the Italian locale, and engaging production design aren't enough to justify this Romeo and Juliet, the latest take on William Shakespeare's tragic romance that fails to conjure either the flames of passion or the melancholy ache of affliction. While some questionable decisions were made in Julian Fellowes' tweaked adaptation of the bard's language, the root of the problem lies in the pair playing the star-crossed lovers, where Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth look the parts without delivering the raw emotion generated between young, fierce lovers torn apart by their families' rivalry. When the friar and aesthetics are the most substantial takeaways from a film adaptation of this storied play, leaving one pining for the likes of Olivia Hussey or Leo DiCaprio instead, it's clear that there's trouble in fair Verona. Fox's Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but this is an adaptation that should be approached with caution: some might find this a worthwhile rental for the sights and distinctive script recalibration (and a reliable turnout from Paul Giamatti), but enthusiasts of Shakespeare and of the story itself will be better off if they simply overlook this one.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site