Swords clash, hooves thunder and cheekbones glow in Carlo Carlei’s swashbuckling Romeo and Juliet, and still the question deserves to be asked: Did we need another adaptation of this romantic classic, especially a version told in a straightforward, period-appropriate way? Has Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic, modernized version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes — released 17 years ago and still effective today — become the contemporary standard?
Carlei’s film is not particularly imaginative in terms of context, but it offers proof that this material never tarnishes, that with the right sort of movie magic, even a traditional telling can be thrilling. There are reasons Shakespeare’s work still resonates, and Romeo and Juliet provides quite a few of them (evocative characters; poetic language; the astute depictions of those universal emotions, love and hate). The filmmakers also had the brilliant idea of shooting much of the movie in Verona and Mantua, the play’s original settings, and the crumbling brick walls of the ancient cities cast a powerful spell (although sometimes the streets and squares seem a little too conveniently deserted).
Carlei doesn’t waste time dithering: The screenplay, by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, barrels forward with all the haste of impetuous love. The movie comes in just shy of two hours, but you won’t miss what has been left out, although Romeo’s parents have such small parts you might start to wonder if he’s an orphan, and his right-hand man Mercutio (Christian Cooke), one of the play’s most appealing characters, deserves more screen time. But the basics are there: the bitter feud between the Montagues and Capulets; the party at which Romeo (Douglas Booth) spies Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit) across the room and they fall in love; and the ugly, unnecessary violence that shapes their unhappy fates.
Romeo and Juliet has moments of great visual appeal as the camera captures the action against the frescoes, pillars and alcoves of fair Verona; Juliet’s famous balcony is breathtaking in its beauty. Less successful are the endless, intrusive close-ups of the actors, particularly Booth, a competent but distractingly pretty Romeo (in his first scene, he’s so gorgeously sweaty and disheveled he makes the attractive actors of the CW look like the zombies from The Walking Dead). Half the point of filming Romeo and Juliet is to make young women swoon, of course, and Booth will accomplish that task easily. But the continuous shots of him bathed in golden light become comic after awhile, just as constant close-ups of Paul Giamatti’s otherwise terrific Friar detract from the story’s tragic ending. (You will, however, applaud the Friar’s impatient response to Romeo’s petulant weeping.)
Overall, though, the cast makes up for the movie’s missteps, especially Lesley Manville (Another Year) as Juliet’s loving, teasing Nurse and Damian Lewis (Homeland) as Juliet’s demanding father. The biggest surprise is Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl) as the ferocious Tybalt, a Capulet who refuses to bow to civilly mandated niceties and sets a course that dooms almost everyone. Such fine performances make this Romeo and Juliet more of a triumph than a tragedy.
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Paul Giamatti, Lesley Manville, Damian Lewis, Ed Westwick, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Stellan Skarsgard.
Director: Carlo Carlei.
Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes. Based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Producers: Simon Bosanquet, Lawrence Elman, Julian Fellowes, Alexander Koll, Ileen Maisel, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding, Nadja Swarovski, Dimitra Tsingou.
A Relativity Media release. Running time: 118 minutes. Some violence, thematic elements. Playing at area theaters.