A bad, bad Bard

“Wherefore art we in this mess of a film, Romeo?”

“Wherefore art we in this mess of a film, Romeo?”

Rated 1.0

The new movie version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reminded me of a cartoon I once saw in a magazine. The setting is a college classroom. Every student has a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow—except one, a dim-looking jock who holds the Classics Illustrated comic-book version. The professor, supremely bored, is saying, “All right, class, if you’ll open your books to page 228that’s page 14 for you, Mr. Finchley.”

This latest Romeo & Juliet is a movie for the Finchleys of the world; it even dumbs “and” down to “&.”

There’s blame to go around in this mockery of the Bard of Avon, but the chief culprit is writer Julian Fellowes, who is on record as saying that Shakespeare’s “language choices” are beyond the reach of today’s audiences. Fellowes’ own language choices are simple to the point of simplemindedness. Where Shakespeare wrote poetry, Fellowes writes doggerel, often resorting to cliché. One character even says (in iambic pentameter, yet), “Good intentions pave the road to hell.” Actually, that’s one famous line Shakespeare didn’t write: It goes back centuries before him. In catering to his unlettered audience, Fellowes trots out a line that was a cliché even in Shakespeare’s day.

In another scene, Romeo, after staying out all night mooning over Juliet, tells Mercutio and Benvolio, “Thanks for covering my tracks.” If only somebody had covered Fellowes’.

Maybe Fellowes was less concerned with the comprehension of his audience than the limitations of his leads: The “star-crossed lovers” here are, alas, played by two black holes. As Juliet, Hailee Steinfeld—so lively and spirited in the Coens’ True Grit—flounders, mumbling her lines and shifting her eyes in confusion, as if wondering how anybody could ever have talked like this (we can only wonder what she’d do if Fellowes had given her more of Shakespeare to chew on). Like an amateur, she even bobbles Juliet’s second-most-famous line (after “parting is such sweet sorrow”), making “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” sound like she’s asking where he is. (Note to Steinfeld: “wherefore” means “why.”)

Worse, she has little chemistry with the Romeo of Douglas Booth, who was unfamiliar to me until I remembered him from last year’s LOL. Back then, I called him “as bland and faceless as” a Calvin Klein underwear model, and that still holds. Booth is gorgeousif truth be told, he’s prettier than Hailee Steinfeldbut it’s skin-deep. Did the producers hope to snag the Twilight saga’s teenage audience? If so, Booth is their man/boy: He’s almost as dull as Robert Pattinson.

Booth and Steinfeld (and Fellowes, for that matter) might have profited from Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 take on the story, where Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey (at about the same ages Booth and Steinfeld are now) burned with the white-hot fires of youth and had no trouble channeling them through Shakespeare. On the other hand, these young players might have preferred not to be influenced by others. On the third hand, they may not have thought about it one way or another. Their lackluster, halting work here could support either conclusion.

Director Carlo Carlei is just as out of his depth as Steinfeld and Booth. The movie was filmed in Verona and Mantua in Italy, where the play was set, but the authenticity backfiresthe buildings are picturesque, but they look 500 years old.

Carlei’s most ill-considered touch, however, is his staging of the duel between Romeo and Tybalt (a snarling Ed Westwick), which he climaxes by having Romeo stab Tybalt in the back. Some hero.

The supporting cast adds a little class: Paul Giamatti’s conniving Friar Laurence, Lesley Manville’s featherheaded Nurse, Stellan Skarsgård’s stately Prince of Verona.

In 1996, I was a little hard on Baz Luhrmann’s jagged, hopped-up version of the story, and on Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles. I take it all back now. Carlei, Fellowes and company have done the seemingly impossible: They’ve made a Baz Luhrmann movie look like the National Theatre of Great Britain.