The Montague and Capulet families are embroiled in a long-running feud. When Romeo Montague (Douglas Booth) attends a Capulet ball in disguise, he immediately falls in love with the beautiful Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of his families’ sworn enemy. Although already engaged to a man she does not love, Juliet agrees to marry Romeo. They ask Friar Laurence (Paul Giamatti) to perform the ceremony in secret, but bloodshed and tragedy threaten the couple’s future.
William’s Shakespeare’s most famous work is adapted for the screen once again, now always trying to break out of the shadows of Baz Luhrmann’s epic adaptation several years ago. Packing the Bard’s entire play into 118 minutes is a tough challenge regardless of director or cast, yet that has been accomplished here.
At times it feels at odds to see the film move so fast through some of the more incandescent moments in the lives of the main characters, but if a full blown adaptation were to occur it could run to several hours. Here in this version, it removes the fat and keeps the meat of the story, mainly down to the screenplay coming from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows. It’s tight and on the mark for all key points so it’s difficult to be disappointed when it skips such small moments.
The issue that always surrounds Romeo & Juliet is having the right couple as the leads; we need to believe that these are a real loved-up couple that will stop at nothing to be together. As Juliet, Hailee Steinfield pulls up a rather impressive performance. Her sexual desires come to the forefront every time they meet, and her wayward wailing towards her family of lost love is highly charged. She skips along the language with ease and almost makes it feel easy to digest.
The problem arrives with Douglas Booth’s interpretation of Romeo. His over the top melodrama recalls bad school plays with stilted expression and constant underwhelming bravado. Playing it more towards the Twilight fan base rather than the Shakespeare collective, he may have the looks to melt teen hearts but if you haven’t the heart in the role it becomes difficult to emphasize with him. This also goes for his gang of merry men (boys?) who see it more as group of lads out on the town as it all gets a bit shouty and boisterous.
The backup cast is of great proportions, including such talent as Paul Giamatti, Stellan Skarsgard, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natascha McElhone and Damien Lewis. They all deliver the language and styling out with ease but sadly they are only relegated to bit-part players in a film that needs them to be more at the forefront throughout.
This new version of Romeo & Juliet offers nothing new (but who was expecting it to?), however the movie zips along nicely without incessant interruption. The two leads are at odds in their acting which brings the film completely off balance for their moments together. It’s certainly not the worst of the Bard’s movie catalogue yet it lacks the authenticity we required from a big-screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s work.