Romeo and Juliet: Strictly Undead

It’s best not to think too hard about Romeo and Juliet while you are watching it. Love in the early modern period was seen as a form of madness, an imbalance of humours, an irrational state. The fact that these two characters meet, fall in love, are separated, despair, and die over a couple of days captures quite well the way love can seem. Whether this speedy courtship is supposed to be literal or figurative, whether it is a comment on the nature of love, or perhaps fate, is all secondary. Primarily, the courtship is speedy because this is a play and the story has to fit into the length of the play. During a performance the audience enters into an agreement to suspend their disbelief. If the play is well performed, well-paced, and intriguing, suspension of disbelief is easy. It can be very easy to believe in the love of Romeo and Juliet. If you slowly pick the play apart, it really makes no sense at all. Either that or they were a very silly pair indeed.

When the trailer for the new Romeo and Juliet film (directed by Carlo Carlei) did the rounds, many people I know had generally decided that they weren’t going to like it for various reasons, but probably especially because the script had been adapted by Julian Fellowes. There are some people who think Shakespeare’s scripts should remain untouched, while there are others who just don’t think that Downton Abbey quite measures up to the big, bad Bard. Although I wouldn’t like to admit it (especially to Becky who reviews the film on Assorted Buffery) I was looking forward to this film, and really rather expecting to enjoy it. I knew there’d be beautiful scenery, gorgeous costumes, and a Burberry model with cheek-bones to spare – what’s not to like? I am also by no means against adapting Shakespeare – it’s our cultural heritage; we should own it. In the history of performance these plays have seldom appeared as they do in the folio – Bardolatry is a relatively recent fetish. Who can even establish which of the early versions is most authoritative? Thirdly, I was hoping that this would do for the Twilight generation what Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet did for the youth of the 90s: show Shakespeare as relevant and exciting to them.

Sadly, the film, though be-au-ti-ful, was really rather clunky. Its disjointed, deathly pace really opened up all those gaps in logic and shattered any illusion. The comments we all made at school came back to haunt us: “huh? These kids barely know each other! What?” The adapted script was a bit like a Loeb edition of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (for those of us who used those at school). Shakespeare’s text was presented side by side with Fellowes' modernised text in weary parallel. Everything was said twice, or even three times: in simple 21st Century language, in early modern English, and then sometimes for a third time in a mangled combination of the two. This really slowed the action down and sucked out any of the fragile magic created by Douglas Booth’s (Romeo), admittedly magnificent, bone structure. This botch job gave the actors quite a hard time too. Often the added lines, generally quite colloquial, stood out like a sore thumb from Shakespeare’s verse. Perhaps to cloak this incongruity, many of the lines were murmured quickly in something approaching monotone, which rather poured cold water on the vivacity of the young cast, especially Hailee Steinfelt.

I think Steinfelt is a brilliant actor (True Grit was a surprise favourite due to her stand out performance), but she wasn’t given a chance to shine in this film. It seemed as if the cinematography and story boarding had been planned with a beautiful, fragile, and ethereal mannequin in mind. There were a ridiculous number of lingering shots of beams of light shining from one side on to her youthful face, or onto her shiny brunette locks as they were caressed by the wind. She was treated as the lavish Renaissance sets and costumes were, as an object of gaze and really no more. Not only was this insulting to her skills as an actor, not only did it slow down the pace of the film to that of a snail, it also spectacularly failed to suit Steinfelt. This aesthetic might have suited Zeffirelli’s Juliet (Olivia Hussey) who was delicate and doe-eyed, but Hailee Steinfeld has a different kind of beauty which didn’t suit being shoe-horned into this soppy approach. Steinfeld is charming, strong, and cheeky-looking, perhaps her Juliet could have been feisty and defiant (a valid interpretation and much more suited to Steinfeld’s looks and talents than the ethereal mannequin she was forced to play).

The entire film looked like a Vogue photoshoot, and was stunning down to every detail. Although stilted, the film wasn’t all bad: I did cry at the end (although I have been known to cry after finishing a particularly good Vogue fashion story). The actors were good, the music was excellent in places, and the sets and costumes were wonderful. Also, I would love it if there was a comedy spin-off about the trials and tribulations of a Renaissance marriage, starring Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, and their hair, and written by Julian Fellowes. Sadly though, the film lacked alchemy and energy. Frankly it was a little like the undead… So perhaps it will be the Romeo + Juliet for the Twilight generation.

Spot the difference...

Images from


  1. This is how film reviews should be - although you've confirmed my intention of not going to see this adaptation. I especially like your discussion of Juliet being invariably presented as an ethereal beauty belonging in the pages of Vogue, and agree that this was another missed opportunity to open up the character in new ways. Does she even have to be beautiful for the play to work? I wonder if that is a requirement of the film/theatre world, rather than a requirement of the script, as the play is more about the inexplicable strength of chemistry than of beauty. And chemistry is much more interesting. - Carina

    1. Carina, I think your comment is spot on! Surely a Juliet with a captivating personality would have worked better, but more and more film producers replace a female character's personality with beauty. I suppose from an early modern theatre perspective, the aural is often much more important than the visual (people often talked of hearing a play) so her beauty could be said to be neither here nor there. I loved your blog by the way.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts