Every generation seems to get the "Romeo and Juliet" it deserves: Baz Luhrmann's hip-hop-and-Shakespeare sampling of '96; Franco Zeffirelli's countercultural nude-sex version of '68. Director Carlo Carlei's 2013 adaptation -- starring "True Grit's" Hailee Steinfeld as the ill-fated Capulet, and the lush-lipped Douglas Booth as her main-squeezable Montague -- has a predictable approach to making Shakespeare more accessible: less Shakespeare. And more Julian Fellowes, author of all those easily digestible "Downton Abbey" episodes, whose screenplay takes great leaping liberties with the Bard's most popular play, while feigning faithfulness. It's a neat trick.
It is not, however, a very successful movie, partly because what has so distinguished "R&J" is an uncanny use of comedy; the humor cuts the tragedy, while making it more sharp. There are certainly some laughable moments -- Booth's first languorous close-up is one -- but there's a sober, sobering spirit to the production that takes the joy out of a character like the Nurse (the usually wonderful Leslie Manville) and her exchanges with Friar Laurence (the still wonderful Paul Giamatti) and gives us a "Romeo and Juliet" that walks around, like much of its cast, with flared nostrils.
Without giving much away (could you? after 400 years?) there are certain "adjustments" to the original that are significant: The lost message that sets the final disaster in motion is blamed on a monk who stops to save a sick child (who can argue with that?). The concluding scene in the chapel has never, to this writer's recollection, included a reunion quite like the audience-appeasing finale here, which is certainly not in the original. As usual, however, in Updated Shakespeare Land, it is the actors upon whom the play lives or dies and the best example of what's amiss here is the famous balcony scene, in which both Steinfeld and Booth seem quite happy just to have remembered their lines. The lovers provide no palpable passion. And without that, there is very much woe. But not much point.
PLOT Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers plight their troth in faire Verona.
RATING PG-13 (violence, adult content)
CAST Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Paul Giamatti, Lesley Manville, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard
BOTTOM LINE Actors playing dress-up -- except Paul Giamatti, who provides a little bit of renaissance each time he appears on screen.