Sunday, October 13, 2013

True Love Never Did Run Smooth: ROMEO AND JULIET

A Shakespeare adaptation has an inescapable feeling of repetition. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, provided those behind the scenes know how to make the text work for them. The main question becomes whether the new production works. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, there are two scenes that are absolutely crucial to making a worthy retelling. The first is the balcony scene, the moment where the audience needs to fully understand the attraction between the star-crossed lovers. The second crucial scene is the finale, the result of bits of coincidence that create the conditions for the tragic conclusion and must seem to flow naturally, reaching a poetic climax of heartbreak. In the newest big screen adaptation of the play, these scenes worked for me. My heart swelled when Romeo calls up to Juliet and they speak hushed infatuation. My eyes were a tad wet when the tale terminates in woe. With those moments locked down, the film can’t be all bad. The center’s too strong. That Shakespeare knew what he was doing.

This adaptation is a solid work that tells the well-known story with an earnest and heartfelt approach, tremblingly scored, capably performed. It was filmed on location in Italy with a cast dashing and gorgeous in period-piece appropriate clothing, speaking in Masterpiece Theater accents. The immortal narrative of two households, both alike in dignity, where ancient grudge leads to civil blood making civil hands unclean, has its inherent interest and power intact. Julian Fellowes, screenwriter of Gosford Park and creator of Downton Abbey, wrote the script, which stays true to the tone and shape of Shakespeare’s original play. It is not, however, an adaptation of total fealty to the Bard’s text. It’s not simply a matter of abridgment or subtly shifted emphasis. Some scenes are invented; lines are reworked and reworded. It’s distinctly Romeo and Juliet, but shifted ever so slightly away from the language on the page.

But that makes it sound like a calamity, a gross modernization, and it’s not that. Much of the original text’s most famous passages – “Wherefore art thou?” – remain nearly verbatim, while the rest of the film proceeds with not disastrously rewritten lines that remain true to the essence of the play. And, though Fellowes is talented, he is not Shakespeare. Still, the new dialogue clangs not to these ears, even if it’s not exactly at the same level. The original narrative is so strong, not to mention unscathed, and the production so dedicated to the feeling and tone of the text that it moves with a resonance that rings true to the play’s spirit, if not always its linguistic specifics. The cast finds the dialogue easily tripping off their tongues, smoothly and with great feeling.

In the leads are Douglas Booth, new to me, and Hailee Steinfeld, the remarkable young woman who stole the show in the Coen brothers’ True Grit. They make a very pretty Romeo and Juliet, she with her youthful open countenance and emotive eyes, he with prominent cheekbones and male-model smolder. But they don’t only look the part. There’s a fresh-faced adolescent impulsive obsession in their romance, a quivering discovery that vibrates on a tastefully melodramatic level. We don’t have to believe it is True Love, only that Romeo and Juliet think it is. As Taylor Swift once sang, “When you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re going to believe them.”

Filling out the supporting cast are plenty of character actors doing good work with classic roles, from Homeland’s Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet to Let Me In’s Kodi Smit-McPhee as Benvolio, frequent Mike Leigh collaborator Lesley Manville as Nurse, and Stellan Skarsgård as the Prince of Verona. Best of all is Paul Giamatti’s Friar Laurence, who in this telling takes on a terrific twinkle in his eye, is tickled by his plan to help wed, and later reunite, the lovers, and is fantastically distraught when it all goes wrong. As the characters go through the paces, the movie rushes along, finding sometimes-awkward transitions. A cut from a covert wedding to Ed Westwick’s Tybalt scowling while practicing his sword skills is a tad laughable. But in general, the film does the play justice.

The cinematography by David Tattersall is handsome; the costumes are appealing. It’s not exactly a lavish production – a bush in the balcony scene is a bit of conspicuous fakery – but it’s largely nicely done. Director Carlo Carlei, a relative unknown here in the States having worked mainly in Italian TV, is the least interesting aspect of the film. He’s no George Cukor or Franco Zeffirelli or Baz Luhrmann, far better directors who brought (wildly dissimilar) cinematic styles to their versions of Romeo and Juliet. For better and worse, Carlei brings only the stuffy, undistracted gloss that you’d find in any blandly proficient prestige project. The best that can be said is that he stays out of the way. This is Fellowes’ project through and through, and even he plays second fiddle to Shakespeare. This is Romeo and Juliet and all that implies. My heart swelled. My eyes got wet. Because the film gets the most important aspects right, it works.

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