“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.” That’s the good Friar Lawrence warning Romeo not to act in haste, though he might just as well have been advising against the lurching, unsteady approach that proves the undoing of this desultory new version of “Romeo & Juliet.” Billing itself as the first picture since Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film to return Shakespeare’s endlessly malleable tragedy to its Veronese roots, director Carlo Carlei’s underwhelming adaptation, streamlined and simplified by Julian Fellowes from the original text, offers a throwback to classicism but is in little danger of being mistaken for a classic. Shorn of eroticism, intensity or purpose, apart from being the first feature backed by enterprising luxury brand Swarovski, it strikes familiar beats in a manner more strained than inspired.
Opening Oct. 11 Stateside through Relativity Media, this first high-profile Hollywood stab at the material in nearly two decades could court an appreciative global audience on the basis of its solid international cast. Still, while Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth have their virtues as the star-cross’d lovers of the tale, they don’t come close to achieving the incandescence of Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the emotionally, dramatically and above all musically superior Zeffirelli version. Nor, for that matter, are they likely to captivate teenage audiences as Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes did in Baz Luhrmann’s boldly contemporary 1996 update, whose passion and stylistic chutzpah can’t help but inspire renewed appreciation by comparison.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a straightforward, traditional attempt to revive one of the Bard’s most enduring works for a fresh generation of moviegoers unfamiliar with the earlier versions, or even with “West Side Story.” In the absence of a novel or imaginative take on the material, a skillful director can invest a well-worn text — or in this case, a slightly dumbed-down abridgment of a well-worn text — with vividness, spontaneity and emotional authenticity. Yet those qualities are little in evidence in a picture that staggers under the weight of its 18 producers and exec producers, all but ensuring a tepid outcome.
From the opening frames, there’s a clear sense of action muscling poetry to the side, as a gravelly voiceover introducing “two houses, both alike in dignity” is lost amid the noisy hoofbeats of a jousting tournament pitting the Capulets against the Montagues. The camera darts to keep up with the characters as they race through the gardens and hallways of fair Verona (handsomely rendered by production designer Tonino Zera and lensed in widescreen by d.p. David Tatersall). Everything seems to unfold in a clumsy swirl of motion, sometimes even slow-motion: Juliet (Steinfeld) gets a particularly silly first scene, tilting her beaming, beatific face toward the viewer in a shot whose shampoo-commercial aesthetics are mercifully not a recurring thing.
That closeup is perhaps intended to etch Steinfeld’s considerable loveliness in the viewer’s memory, and perhaps to ward off the occasional awkwardness of her attempts to wrestle with Shakespeare’s language. Given how skillfully the young actress mastered Charles Portis’ equally tricky dialogue in the Coen brothers’ “True Grit,” it’s a bit surprising to hear her struggle to deliver some of that pesky iambic pentameter in a more naturalistic rhythm; it’s hard to get swept away by the famous balcony scene when you’re too busy wincing at mangled cadences. Still, what Steinfeld lacks in precise diction she makes up for in sweetness, gentility and an emotional openness that feels true to Juliet’s optimistic spirit.
Her co-star, Booth, has almost precisely the opposite problem; the actor meets the verbal demands of his role more than capably, but proves a much harder presence to warm to. Mileage will vary on this point, but as a rule, no Romeo should be prettier than his Juliet, and from the moment he’s introduced — wearing a loose-fitting tunic, looking ready to do something vaguely artistic with a chisel, and pouting like a proud graduate of the Scarlett Johansson School for Full-Lipped Thespians — Booth looks less like a sensitive, ardently romantic youth than the frontman for some Renaissance-era boy band. Given that the two young leads aren’t ideally matched visually or verbally, it’s no wonder their tragic love story never quite gets off the ground, though the absence of chemistry, much less sexual heat, is scarcely the sole area in which this “Romeo & Juliet” comes up short.
The plot’s parameters are by now so familiar that the film risks taking them for granted. The intense enmity between the Capulets and the Montagues doesn’t feel especially convincing or well dramatized; with the pronounced exception of the perpetually foul-tempered Tybalt (Ed Westwick), who seems too murderously belligerent from the get-go, everyone here looks more or less ready to bury the hatchet. The swordplay sequences are shot in a rough-and-tumble handheld style that aims to lend the proceedings a shot of energy yet merely comes off as visually inconsistent. And nary a single scene is allowed to play out untainted by Abel Korzeniowski’s score, which endlessly recycles the same banal theme with only minimal variations.
The picture’s bright spots are provided, none too surprisingly, by the older actors (although 17-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee is impressively watery-eyed as Romeo’s loyal cousin, Benvolio). While Natascha McElhone’s Lady Capulet and Stellan Skarsgard’s Prince are largely functional here, Lord Capulet gets a splendidly self-deluded reading from Damian Lewis, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran whose credits include Jonathan Kent’s 1995 staging of “Hamlet” and the BBC’s 2005 TV adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing”; his mastery is more than apparent. And the piece’s two pivotal supporting characters are done similar justice: Lesley Manville (another RSC alum) brings a real measure of gravity to the role of Juliet’s nurse, while Paul Giamatti (who starred in the Yale Rep’s production of “Hamlet” earlier this year) is near-perfect as the compassionate, world-weary priest who goes out on a limb again and again in support of true love.
Despite the ostensible benefits of having an Italian filmmaker work on his native soil, the film never really comes alive as a visual experience, despite the well-chosen locations, the handsome sets and Carlo Poggioli’s sumptuous costumes. (Notably, Stanley Kubrick’s longtime costume designer, Milena Canonero, receives a co-producing credit here.) Swarovski’s involvement aside, the scenery and accouterments look generally crystal-free, the bejeweled credits typeface notwithstanding.