Friday, June 23, 2017
Romeo and Juliet (2013)
I had missed a 2013 film written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, and directed by Carlo Carlei. It is, somewhat remarkably, set in Italy during the time period Shakespeare meant it to be. But right away I was thrown back on my heels. The prologue was rewritten, adding a jousting tournament between Mercutio and Tybalt. Mercutio is incorrectly named as of the house of Montague (he's neither Montague nor Capulet, which is why he cries out, "A plague o' both your houses!"). In effect, this Romeo and Juliet is the Cliff's Notes version, with words changed, many scenes cut, and amazingly, scenes added.
Fellowes has some hubris adding things to Shakespeare. He creates lines for Rosaline, the normally unseen love of Romeo's early in the play. When Benvolio learns that Romeo is now in love with Juliet, he thinks he might have a shot at Rosaline. None of this adds anything to the play, and just seems there to make people like Harold Bloom angry. I will admit that a scene between Lord and Lady Capulet, when the dad urges Juliet to get married ever sooner to Paris, makes sense--Capulet wants her to marry Paris before Paris backs out, and with Tybalt dead, the Capulet line is in danger of dying out.
But beyond that, Fellowes and Carlei don't really seem to understand the play. Did they not know that in essence, Romeo and Juliet is a comedy for the first half? It has all the elements of a romantic comedy, with lovers and pining and wooing and all that stuff. It also has Mercutio, one of Shakespeare's greatest characters, the wise clown. Here, most of Mercutio is cut. I can understand that, as his banter with Romeo, and his antagonism of the nurse, is mostly puns that no one gets today. But if you have a good Mercutio, it doesn't matter, as just his manner makes you like him. Carlei cuts half of the Queen Mab speech, for goodness' sake, and all of the conjuring scene.
The play turns on a dime and becomes a tragedy when Tybalt kills Mercutio, but if Mercutio is pretty much a non-entity, as he is here, nobody cares. The creative team behind his version seems to think the play has no humor at all.
There are scenes that are usually cut that are kept in, such as almost the entire apothecary scene, and Romeo killing Paris in front of the Capulet monument. But one line is cut that is essential to the play. In fact, the play can be boiled down to two lines: "I am fortune's fool," which is left in, and "Is it e'en so? Then I deny you stars!" (in another folio, it is "I defy you stars!") Both indicate the nature of destiny in the play--when Romeo kills Tybalt, he is a puppet of his own destiny, but when he hears Juliet is dead, he decides to create his own destiny.
Now, to the cast. The name in this production is Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Oscar for True Grit. She proved she's not a one-trick pony with her fine performance in The Edge of Seventeen, but she wasn't ready for Shakespeare. She's cute as a button, but very wooden, especially in the balcony scene. There's no chemistry between her and Douglas Booth, a heartthrob as Romeo. Very good is Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, and Paul Giamatti's performance as Friar Laurence really points out how much of this mess was his fault. Tybalt, I was surprised to learn at the end, was played by Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl. He makes for a very dashing villain.
This wouldn't be a terrible film for kids who are not ready to read Shakespeare, but just to get the story. For anyone who can read it, though, it's pretty much blasphemy.