Romeo and Juliet yet again

Traditional adaptation of Shakespearean play still deviates from its source material

Relativity the studio behind the latest Romeo and Juliet film is trying to market it as a “traditional” adaptation. It’s a shrewd commercial move after scores of more “modern” takes on the classic tragedy but it’s also a dubious claim.

Notably director Carlo Carlei’s screenwriter here isn’t Shakespeare himself but rather Julian Fellowes ( Downton Abbey ) who’s taken liberty with the playwright’s language in favour of authentic-sounding dialogue. The untrained ear may not detect much of a difference at times but as even Fellowes would surely acknowledge he’s no match for Shakespeare. A gorgeous setting stylish costumes and striking cinematography help gloss over the script’s shortcomings. But anyone expecting a big screen version of what would have graced the Globe centuries ago will be disappointed.

The film hews fairly closely to the original’s plot faithfully — if a bit too rapidly — covering the opening brawl between the Capulets and Montagues the young lovers’ first encounter at the ball and their subsequent whirlwind courtship. But while the details are kept in place the ominous mood that is key to Shakespearean tragedy is missing. If one didn’t already know the film’s resolution most of the preceding action feels like it could be summarized by Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.”

As the star-crossed lovers Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth are attractive and charming but no one will mistake them for great Shakespearean actors (indeed; Steinfeld has tellingly remarked she approached the part as she would any other role). Were it so their performances would be adequate but Shakespeare isn’t of course just another playwright. Indeed that they meet at a masked ball seems a tacit acknowledgement of the shallowness of their emotional displays.

At the other end of the spectrum Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence and Lesley Manville as Juliet’s nurse go for broke with their scenery-chewing performances. It may not hew any closer to Shakespeare’s intent but it’s nice to see actors who make no pretense they’re called on to be master thespians here and are just having fun. On a more serious note Stellan Skarsgard as a sour-faced prince and Leon Vitali as a wonderfully seedy apothecary also make memorable if brief appearances.

Even the better performances however have to compete with the film’s thunderous pulsating score which sometimes threatens to drown out the dialogue. Whether or not there’s anything worth listening to however the film’s usually worth watching thanks to its location in historic Verona a setting cinematographer David Tatersall’s painterly lensing beautifully exploits.

The irony of all this however is that Shakespeare’s stage directions were notoriously sparse. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with Carlei’s approach but a Shakespearean production that emphasizes the score and the setting over language and acting is hardly traditional.

A genuinely traditional take on Romeo and Juliet would certainly be a welcome novelty. But Shakespeare aficionados will have to wait for a film that’s truly worthy of the Bard.