“WHAT art thou, Romeo?”: Review of recent Romeo and Juliet adaptation

2013 has been a big year for remakes of the classics for Hollywood. With Baz Luhrman’s long-awaited version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joss Whedon’s modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, it would feel incomplete without a fourth attempt at an adaption of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

After so many recreations of one of the most epic and heart-wrenching stories of all time, with hundreds of modern adaptations of plays, books and movies, one would expect something more exciting and riveting than what Italian director Carlo Carlei produced in his recent version.

While it is conceivable to the viewer that Carlei was trying to maintain the original romantic beauty of the epic play without “hollywoodizing” or modernizing any of its aspects, he also ends up producing a relatively unemotional and entirely cliché version of what should be a tear-wrenching experience.

Even though it is set in breathtaking Verona, Italy, makes use of magnificent period-piece costumes and sticks avidly to Shakespeare’s original prose with only some original scenes cut out, the film ends up resembling a cinematic rendition of a high-school version of the play. Although all the actors in the film have had excellent reputations in previous movies, their projection of the famous lines seem either overly dramatic or without enough emotion in moments where the opposite effect would be desired.

For example, when Haylee Stansfield, Academy Award nominated actress for her gutsy performance in True Grit (2010), recites the most famous seven words of the play: “Romeo, O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” she does not give off the the impression of the tormented star-crossed lover that she is supposed to be, but that of a distant and non-attentive school girl.

This is not to say that other actresses have mastered this line, such as Claire Danes in Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. In my opinion, she also gives a somewhat lame representation of Juliet, however, Luhrman distracts us from this with the powerful performance of Leonardo di Caprio as Romeo. The intensity of the love that he has for Juliet and the gutting sorrow he feels upon learning of her false death is truly felt in di Caprio’s delivery of the prose, whereas Douglas Booth’s delivery in this 2013 performance seems so forced that it renders his epic lines almost humourous.

However, all of the actors fit their roles — physically at least. Haylee Stansfield’s angelic and youthful face truly evokes the innocent beauty that one could picture Juliet having, with her long, dark Renaissance locks, and rosy cheeks that are reminiscent of a da Vinci painting. Douglas Booth also truly epitomizes the striking boyish courtliness that Romeo is described as having. Everything from his lips, lashes and bone structure emanate a Renaissance stud one would imagine Juliet would wholeheartedly fall for.

However, I believe that the true quality in this film lies in the acting of the supporting actors. Carlei chose a star-studded cast to represent his less relevant characters, most prominently Paul Giamatti, as Romeo’s confidant Friar Laurence. His performance accurately demonstrates the fatherly and friendly figure who guides Romeo into marriage with his beloved Juliet. Giamatti greatly conveys the friar’s undying optimism, seen through his hopeful attempt at uniting the Capulet and Montague families.

Beloved Gossip Girl star, Ed Westwick also makes an appearance as the fiery Capulet cousin, Tybalt. His uncontrollable anger towards the Montague family wonderfully manifests itself through a passionate display of a duel fight with Romeo’s cousin, whom he kills. Known for his fervent personality as Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass, in Romeo and Juliet Westwick properly delivers this same beastly passion as the insubordinate character of the Capulet family.

Although aesthetically the film captures the Shakespearian charm of the epoch, this film lacks the creativity that has been so frequently seen in other reproductions. It is impossible to watch this film without comparing it to Luhrman’s 1996 version that was criticized by many Shakespeare enthusiasts for it’s destruction of the original setting. One could claim that at least Luhrman made a conscious attempt to change the frequently reproduced formula by exchanging Verona for the modern setting of South Beach, LA. However, Carlei didn’t even seem to try.

Perhaps it is because the classic, original love story has been reproduced so many times in so many different versions that I feel this way about the film. Carlei’s attempt at maintaining the purity of the original play, in a world that has been sullied with Hollywood’s latest modern additions, he only ends up producing a terribly cliché version of one of the most beautiful plays ever written.