The most excellent and lamentable tragedy "Romeo and Juliet" has been turned into a film that is lamentable without the "excellent" part.
It doesn't waste time imparting that sinking feeling. The movie opens with a chaotic jousting scene between the Capulets and the Montagues of fair Verona, and director Carlo Carlei shoots it like an ad for Medieval (or rather, Elizabethan) Times — with everything but the enormous turkey legs and the wenches. Listening to Skellan Skarsgard's valiant but oddball cadences as Prince Escalus is tough enough; trying to tune out composer Abel Korzeniowski's omnipresently bland musical scoring (it's like carpet, sold by the yard) is even tougher.
This isn't one of those "hip," "now" updates, though those can work wonderfully well, as in the recent Joss Whedon film "Much Ado About Nothing" (showcasing a play a hundred times easier to unlock than "R&J"). Here, adapter Julian Fellowes has no interest in going the Baz Luhrmann modernization route, a la the last major R&J movie, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Rather, we're in the land of suffocating respect and interpretive caution.
Shakespeare's play reminds us eternally of the ways ardent young love can go horribly, horribly wrong. In the new film, Douglas Booth (Pip in the recent BBC "Great Expectations") plays Romeo, first seen chiseling something with his chisel, prettily, for the camera. His co-star is Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet. Steinfeld, so good in the Coen brothers' remake of "True Grit," offers a guileless quality, quite right for this character, but she's given such a ridiculous first close-up — slow-motion, hair tossed just so, as if the story were taking place in Aveda, not Verona — even a more seasoned Shakespearean actress would have a hard time recovering.
These two are sweet, but the impact of their love barely registers. That leaves plenty of space for the characters who usually steal "R&J" away from R&J to do the same here. Paul Giamatti brings comic snap and real ferocity to the meddling, whoopsie-daisy Friar Laurence, the worst friend young love ever had; Lesley Manville's bumptious nurse makes whatever impression she can in a more sympathetic string-pulling role.
Things do not end well. You know that. You've probably seen the musical, with the Jets and the Sharks. The challenge with any new "R&J" is activating the chain of unfortunate events in a way that dramatizes the reckless, irrational biorhythms of adolescent heartache. Carlei instead shoots the movie as a placid foregone conclusion. Without much else going on, you end up comparing the actors' various crying styles, ranging from the artful right-eye-only droplet (glycerin? digital? real?) to the mini-waterfall forming a tiny pool above a trembling upper lip.
"Romeo and Juliet"-- 1 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence and thematic elements)
Running time: 1:58