Tween-aimed Romeo and Juliet dumbs it down for the kids
Starring Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth. Rated PG.
It’s Romeo and Juliet: The Rick Steves Edition. Enjoy the castles, frescoes, and balcony-fronted gardens of old Verona, Mantua, and Rome! Ponder how Renaissance princes kept their codpieces in place! You won’t learn how best to sink-wash your lightweight travel tunic, but it does boast a moderately catchy foreground tale.
You may have already heard the story of star-crossed lovers from rival clans via one William Shakespeare, but much of the old guy’s language has been surgically removed for this tween-aimed take, heavier on brocade, HD skylines, and TV music than on poetry and emotion. This isn’t the first attempt to freshen up R & J, nor even the first by an Italian director working in English with lesser-known, nearly age-appropriate actors. The 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version made a tastefully erotic stir with Argentina-born beauty Olivia Hussey and forgettable Leonard Whiting. There’s less magic here, with hack Carlo Carlei (remember Matthew Modine reincarnated as a dog in Fluke?) utilizing a screenplay by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. Key speeches are retained, but the dialogue is mostly Classics Illustrated boilerplate. Still, it is a bit jarring when Juliet’s maid (Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville) praises the childlike mistress for her “good taste in men”.
As commanding as spunky Hailee Steinfeld was in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, she’s not exactly dripping with charisma as the teenage daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Capulet (a surprisingly clownish Damian Lewis, alongside stern Natascha McElhone). With her whispered British-isms and wide-eyed stare, Steinfeld (only 15 at shooting time) comes across like your buddy’s smart kid sister, not a Botticelli maiden capable of triggering instant marriage proposals, let alone bloody sword fights and antic poison-swallowing. (Paul Giamatti plays the notably drug-savvy Friar Laurence, and Ed Westwick is memorable as Juliet’s nostril-flaring, duel-happy cousin Tybalt.)
As Romeo Montague, Douglas Booth (now 21) is no great shakes, either. He’s androgynously beautiful, however, so I was genuinely surprised when he didn’t sprout fangs and start badmouthing werewolves. Then I remembered that this was PBS, not HBO.