Cards on the table: The 1968 version of Romeo & Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli is a perfect adaptation of the play, a fantastic film, and if you are, for some reason, too lazy to read the play, this is the version you should see. It is timeless, beautiful, and easily accessible even today. There have been a bunch of adaptations — many of which have been seen and remembered by very few — of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, but the ’68 version stands out among the crowd.
I mention this right off the bat because you need to know where I’m coming from when I review this 2013 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. Prior to seeing it, I could see absolutely no reason for a new version to be made. We have a perfect version of this story set in the period and setting for which it was written. We’ve also had an awful modern adaptation courtesy of Baz Luhrmann. What could this new film, which is set in the proper Renaissance period, do differently in order for it to be worth seeing? What justifies its existence?
Well, as it turns out, there actually is something that this Romeo & Juliet does differently from all of the films that came before it: its filmmakers have altered the original dialogue written by Shakespeare. Yes, many of the big lines are there in their entirety, and most of the film at least sound Shakespearean, but much of the dialogue has been slightly altered. That’s this movie’s claim to fame: its writer, Julian Fellowes, thinks he is a better writer than William Shakespeare.
I suppose I can understand the logic. A lot of the members of the PG-13 crowd are going to be forced into reading the film in school, and at that age it’s tough to focus on something you’re not used to. I’ve been there. Nowadays, kids just go on Sparknotes and read a “translated” version anyway. So, in order to make the film an easier watch for the children, many lines have been altered — dumbed down, so to speak. If its hope is to draw in teenagers by being a more approachable version of the play, I guess it’s successful.
But for the adults in the crowd? This change might range from unimportant to offensive. It certainly doesn’t improve the dialogue, which is what a change should hope to do. Perhaps it makes it easier on the actors, although that doesn’t come across, either. The lead roles, especially, play out like they’re bad actors in high school. Neither of them really get the essence or the emotion in the lines. They mostly monotone their way through the script, occasionally swapping dispassionate kisses with each other.
Is there point in even setting up the plot? Doesn’t everyone know Romeo & Juliet by now? In short: two teenagers from warring families fall in love. Romeo is played by Douglas Booth, Juliet is played by Hailee Steinfeld, and neither of them proves anything of worth in this film. Steinfeld is especially bad, mumbling her lines in an attempt to keep us from noticing that she really can’t do a consistent English accent. There’s also a complete lack of emotion in both actors, which is weird considering the play is full of pure emotion.
This is also one of the cheapest looking Shakespeare adaptations you can see. The costumes are generally fine, if unspectacular, but the sets are so sparse and while some of it was filmed on location. the interior shots very much look like sets. And there’s one scene that’s so noticeably different from the rest that I’m inclined to think it was shot entirely in front of a green screen. The film only had a £15 million budget, but it looks cheaper than that.
To be fair, it all moves at a good pace, and the general story structure works as well as it always had. You’re never bored while watching it, and even though it plays for just south of two hours, it doesn’t feel long. I’m inclined to attribute that more to Mr. Shakespeare than the filmmakers, but I suppose they could have completely ruined the play’s pacing, too, but didn’t. Nothing superfluous was added, and nothing substantial was removed. It’s efficient and probably looks good on paper, but add in the details and it greatly suffers.
Some of the actors aren’t terrible. The actors are all the veteran ones. Paul Giamatti plays Friar Laurence, Lesley Manville is the Nurse, Damian Lewis is Lord Capulet, Natascha McElhone is Lady Capulet, and Stellan Skarsgård is the Prince of Verona. All of the actors I just mentioned are either just fine or genuinely great in their roles. They get Shakespeare, they understand how the dialogue works, and the casting is fine. But almost all of the younger actors seem so awkward saying these lines, and their demeanor is too modern, creating an odd mix. Maybe it would have been best to forgo the Shakespearean-type dialogue altogether if you’re already going to change it.
2013’s Romeo & Juliet fails in many ways. It changes the original dialogue written by William Shakespeare, it gets poor performances out of its two leading actors, and it looks far cheaper than it should. It moves at a good clip, if only because the play’s plot wasn’t significantly altered, and the supporting cast is fine, but that can’t overcome all of the film’s issues. The 1968 version is perfect. Go watch it instead.