Romeo and Juliet is a play that is built upon uncontrollable passions of two teenage lovers whose parent’s hegemony is not enough to stop their communion. In Julian Fellowes’ (of Downton Abbey fame) adaptation of arguably Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy none of that energy was translated on to the screen.
The great director Elia Kazan was quoted as saying that at least 80% of directing is casting. In this instance, Fellowes and Carlei fell at the first hurdle and gave themselves a mountain to climb in order to salvage what was left. Simply, the casting of both Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as the ‘Star cross’d lovers’ was fatal. The two did not have chemistry together and the whole film suffered because of it.
Douglas Booth looked strained in his performance, as if remembering his lines was difficult enough, never mind actually giving them life. His casting looks like a desperate attempt to tap into a young audience looking for an Edward Cullen fix (in the wedding scene the look of a pale, Vampiric Edward Cullen is clearly plagiarised) and that acting ability wasn’t prioritised. This decision is even more infuriating as in 1996 Baz Luhrmann cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the role, who was just as attractive but who had the acting talent to match. Booth did not have the necessary understanding or range to adequately perform Shakespeare’s language, often leaving it stunted and completely inconsequential. His voice was monotone and his eyes dead even in supposed moments of ecstasy. Some critics often say that young actors don’t quite grasp the language, but that can be excused if there is palpable emotion. Both DiCaprio and Danes may have struggled with the complexity of language at times but they translated the raw emotion of teenage love (wild and excessive) in a more convincing manner than both Booth and Steinfeld. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate line to sum up Booth’s Romeo as when Friar Lawrence tells him to ‘stop pouting’; during the entire duration it seemed that he was more in love with himself than he ever was with Juliet, and poor Steinfeld was just another vehicle for his narcissism.
As for Steinfeld’s portrayal of Juliet, my opinion is that the role was too much for her, too soon. After being one of many who were left pleasantly surprised by her turn in True Grit (which garnered her Oscar nomination, deservedly so), I couldn’t help but feel she was overawed by the whole occasion. More often than not she rushed through the lines so quickly that they were incomprehensible, and she struggled to convince the audience that she was in any way completely infatuated with Booth’s Romeo. This by all means is not all her own doing, as her task was seemingly made all the more impossible by the lack of anything palpable to latch onto and work with from Booth. It is arguable as to whether she has the maturity to make the role her own at only 15 years of age, but Olivia Hussey was only 16 when she played Juliet in Zefferelli’s version, and Danes only 17 in Luhrmann’s. Hussey at 16 played a more sexualised and empowered Juliet than Danes but pulled it off effortlessly and Danes often reached dizzying heights of intensity in her performance, both of which will leave the bland Steinfeld struggling to be remembered. I do feel that as a young actress, Steinfeld can excel when she has strength around her but is reliant too much upon it. Unsurprisingly, I found her most convincing when Romeo had killed himself (pathetically, I may add) and she was free from the burden, but it really was too little too late.
That being said, despite the extremely thin foundation the film was built upon, there were some poignant moments and strong turns by the supporting cast. It was extremely unfortunate that Kodi Smit-Mcphee’s delicate performance as Benvolio was wasted in this adaptation (I’m still left pondering why he would be so much more emotional at the prospect of Juliet’s death than Romeo, but then again, I’m not surprised); Ed Westwick as a perpetually snarling Tybalt was slightly caricatured but wholly enjoyable and provided a small burst of much needed energy in his loathing of the Montagues and Paul Giamatti provided the one true emotional moment of the entire film upon his discovery of the two dead lovers.
Overall, the film was beyond disappointing and a missed opportunity. The beautiful scenery and sumptuous settings were not utilised well enough to help alleviate the pressure on the young actors, more often than not confining them in small spaces and leaving them trapped. The editing was jarring at times and enough has been said about the acting already – an adaptation best avoided.