Carlo Carlei's "Romeo and Juliet” — the latest of many film adaptations of William Shakespeare's celebrated play — offers its audience lush visuals, sweeping drama, and the strange sense that it doesn't quite understand the lessons of its source material.
It's not a creative reinterpretation like "West Side Story" or Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet," but it's not entirely faithful to the original play, either. In sum, it's kind of pointless.
Not that everyone involved didn't try hard. Carlei's film boasts an impressive cast, populated by familiar faces that were probably excited to be attached to a big-screen adaptation of the classic story. And the authentic settings in locations around Verona, Italy, give the film a majestic feel.
But what, aside from financial gain, could be the motivation behind re-filming a story with only inconsequential plot variations? Did they want lazy English students to get stuck with bad information when they tried to shortchange their ninth-grade Shakespeare unit? Or did they just want to confuse adults who can no longer remember the details of their ninth-grade Shakespeare unit?
The skeleton of the story is the same. Romeo and Juliet come from rivaling families in Verona. They meet at a party, fall in love and get married the next day. Complications arise, as expected with such impulsive behavior, with ultimately tragic results. But dig a little deeper and the differences surface. Paris gets his own fight scene, for one. And let's just say the climax of the film has been altered — logistically. (Do you need to worry about spoilers when discussing a movie based on a 400-year-old play?)
Douglas Booth plays Romeo as the Shakespearean Robert Pattinson, brooding to make the female audiences swoon (his first appearance in a flowing white shirt and leather pants will also make Jim Morrison fans swoon). Hailee Steinfeld, who recently received an Oscar nomination for her work in "True Grit" (another remake!), plays Juliet. Both are serviceable, and their supporting cast is impressive (Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, etc.). But no performance truly stands out to define the film.
It's not uncommon for source material to be altered in the transition to the big screen, but none of the changes in "Romeo and Juliet" feel necessary or connected to any deliberate purpose. "West Side Story" translated Shakespeare's tragedy into a modern urban setting to give audiences a sense of how it would feel in contemporary times.
"Romeo + Juliet" juxtaposed the original dialogue against a gangland backdrop, giving us a world where gang members spoke Shakespearean English. Carlei's effort just seems to want to tell the same story, only not really. It wants to be its own story, but refuses to commit to the idea. But at least it looks really good.
Here, a story that should be noted as a cautionary tale against the impulsiveness of youth, comes across more as a celebration of forbidden love. The fact that this "love" is really little more than lust and rebellion is ignored by everyone involved — though at least the lust waits until marriage to be consummated. The tagline for this film is "the most dangerous love story ever told." I think that's why William Shakespeare wrote it as a tragedy.
When you get right down to it, the only truly appreciative audience for this film might be people who want to see a relatively faithful adaptation of the story, but want to avoid the nudity of Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version. "Romeo and Juliet" is rated PG-13 for more restrained sexual content, and a little bit more stabbing violence (at least one sword fight's worth) than usual.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.
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