Julian Fellowes’ ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is Seriously Lacking in Passion

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a play which has been done to death. Keeping track of all the adaptations is aggravating, but on top of that, there are other plays or musicals which were, at the very least, inspired by this classic tragedy (“West Side Story” is the most obvious example). Since Shakespeare’s time, “Romeo and Juliet” has been done in many different styles and taken place in various time periods. It seems the only way to do a production of it these days is to break free of the way it was done during Shakespeare’s time. Baz Luhrmann’s modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” was absolutely entrancing in how it made us feel like we were watching the doomed story of two young lovers for the first time, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes never had a shortage of chemistry between them.

Taking all of that into account, that makes this “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Carlo Carlei and adapted to the screen by Julian Fellowes, come across as a renegade version for they have instead brought Shakespeare’s work back to its traditional and romantic version. It is filled with medieval costumes, balcony scenes and duels, and the filmmakers even got the opportunity to shoot it at the story’s original location of Verona, Italy. But for all the effort put into this umpteenth film adaptation of this famous tragedy, the whole endeavor feels like it is severely lacking in passion.

Perhaps the main problem is the lack of chemistry between the two leads, Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld, who play Romeo and Juliet. When they first meet at the dance, their attraction to one another is not all that palpable and feels rather forced. While both actors do their best to connect with one another, their relationship never felt believable enough for me to really care about what happens to them. In fact, towards the end, I started to get impatient and kept waiting for Romeo to do himself in already.

Steinfeld is a wonderful actress, having deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her performance in “True Grit” (though she should have been for Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress). As Juliet, she does well and has quite a radiant smile which lights up the screen. At the same time, she seems miscast in this role when paired with Booth. While Steinfeld is around the same age as Juliet, she seems too young to be taking on this famous role now. It’s a shame to say this because she isn’t bad, but I came out of this movie thinking an actress a few years older might have fit this role more realistically.

As for Booth, it takes too long for him to come to life as Romeo. When we first see him, he doesn’t seem all that crazy about Rosalind even after we see him making a bust of her likeness. When it comes to the classic balcony scene, the attraction between him and Juliet feels awkward as they still don’t seem as madly in love as they are supposed to be. Booth’s performance does get stronger as the movie goes on, but he never digs deep enough into the character to where it seems like he is only touching the surface of Romeo’s dilemmas.

Carlei, whose work as a director I am not familiar with, does capture the beauty of Verona, Italy to where it made me want to get on a plane and visit it. His handling of the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues, however, is not clearly defined, and we never quite get a full idea of what made them hate each other in the first place. This is the original gang story for crying out loud! As for the battle scenes, they feel a bit too staged and could have been far more exciting.

Fellowes is best known for creating the popular show “Downton Abbey,” and he seems a natural to adapt any Shakespeare play let alone “Romeo and Juliet.” He preserves the dialogue for the most part, and it’s clear he has a deep love and understanding for the Bard’s words. At the same time, this film has been severely affected by a misleading advertisement which stated it would not be using Shakespeare’s traditional dialogue but would still follow the play’s plot. But having been exposed to this play many times myself, I could not tell the difference between what Shakespeare wrote and what Fellowes came up with. Go figure.

It is a real shame because this “Romeo & Juliet” has a number of great supporting performances which almost make it worth watching. Ed Westwick makes a fierce antagonist out of Tybalt, his eyes filled with rage over a betrayal he can never forgive. Lesley Manville, best known for work with Mike Leigh, is priceless as the Nurse and succeeds in taking this character from her ecstatic highs to her tragic lows. Manville never misses a beat every time she appears onscreen.

There’s also Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, and he gives the character of Juliet’s father a twisted feel which really makes his performance stand out. Kodi-Smit McPhee is very strong as Romeo’s good friend Benvolio, Natascha McElhone gives us a sympathetic Lady Capulet, and Stellan Skarsgård is a welcome presence as the Prince.

But it should be no surprise to see Paul Giamatti stealing the show as Friar Laurence, as it’s truly one of the best interpretations of this role I have ever seen. Friar Laurence is the moral center of “Romeo & Juliet,” and he sees the union between the two lovers as a way of bringing peace between the Capulets and the Montagues. I could tell just how much Giamatti put his heart and soul into this role, and I wept with him when his well-intentioned plans fall apart so tragically.

Still, despite all the great performances, this “Romeo & Juliet” never really comes to life in the way a truly great Shakespearean production does. The language in his plays is so rich, and it can be so intoxicating to take in when done right. This is how I felt after watching Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, but Carlei is not as successful in making this famous playwright’s words come alive, and he is working from a script by Fellowes for crying out loud!

Every generation definitely deserves their own version of “Romeo and Juliet,” but this one is not going to do it. They will be better off with Baz Luhrmann’s version which ended up breaking my heart as it made me wonder if things might take a different turn from what we remember. Or perhaps it was just that big crush I had on Clare Danes which made Baz Luhrmann’s movie affect me so much. Oh well…

* * out of * * * *

James Gunn Looks Back at the Making of ‘Tromeo & Juliet’

James Gunn photo

The screening of “Tromeo and Juliet” at New Beverly Cinema brought many people to the theater who were involved in its making. Among them were the movie’s director and co-founder of Troma Entertainment Lloyd Kaufman, actor Will Keenan who played Tromeo, and actors Sean Gunn and Stephen Blackheart among others. But the real star of the evening was filmmaker James Gunn who entertained the devoted audience with many anecdotes about “Tromeo and Juliet’s” making. Best known these days for his films “Slither,” “Super,” for writing the script to the “Dawn of the Dead” remake and most especially for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Tromeo and Juliet” was one of his first jobs in the movie business.

Tromeo and Juliet movie poster

“Tromeo and Juliet” is, of course, loosely inspired by William Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet,” and Kaufman said he and Troma Entertainment had tried to write the script for three or four years and could not get it right. It was his sister’s best friend who sent Gunn’s resume to Kaufman’s attention, and at that point Gunn had already graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in Writing Fiction. Kaufman, however, noticed something different about him.

“What caught my attention was he vomited onstage, that he was a performance actor who vomited onstage,” Kaufman said about Gunn. “I didn’t know whether he vomited because he was nervous or because it felt it was entertaining or because perhaps he had studied all the work of Terence Malick. But whatever it was, it was sort of like that moment in ‘The Producers’ when Zero Mostel sees his Hitler and says ‘you’re my Hitler!’ James Gunn was ours.”

Gunn said he didn’t actually vomit onstage and that Kaufman may have read someone else’s resume, but it didn’t matter because he got the job.

Keenan said he had not seen “Tromeo and Juliet” in fifteen years before this night and he joked that it looked twenty years old when it first came out. But for Gunn, this was part of the movie’s design.

“When we were doing the movie, I remember that I wanted it to look really dated,” Gunn said. “I used to love ‘Valley Girl’ and I loved looking back at it because it looked so 80’s. And I wanted to make this one look as 90’s as possible (it came out in 1997).”

Gunn recalled writing the first draft for “Tromeo and Juliet” in about a week and a half, and he gave it to Kaufman and assumed he was going to love it. Kaufman, however, found Gunn’s script to be “too filthy,” and this is saying a lot because Troma Entertainment movies usually revel in being filthy. Kaufman said there were about “8 scenes of urination” in the script, and Juliet was originally written to make her first appearance in a porno booth which is where the initial conversations between her and Tromeo would have taken place. Kaufman complained “Shakespeare didn’t have that in mind” when he wrote “Romeo and Juliet.”

There was also a bit said about Jane Jensen who played Juliet. She was not able to attend this screening, but Gunn talked of how he joked around with her throughout shooting. One scene from “Tromeo & Juliet” has her character’s stomach opening up to reveal popcorn and then rats and maggots. Jensen apparently had a near nervous breakdown shooting it as she had a major phobia of the maggots and was screaming her head off as the cameras rolled. Gunn recalls exactly what was going through his head at that moment.

“Wow! Jane’s acting is really good in this scene,” Gunn said. “And then all of a sudden I go ‘holy shit! I think that maybe this is real!’ And then I had that evil filmmaker moment where you go ‘do I keep filming?’”

Gunn ended up reminiscing about a review of “Tromeo and Juliet” he read in Film Threat Magazine, and he felt it captured the movie perfectly.

“They said, ‘I don’t know how to review this film because you can’t win,’” Gunn reminisced. “’If you say that there’s something stupid in here, they (the filmmakers) are going to say yeah, we meant to do that. And if you say there’s something great in here, they’re going to say yeah, we meant to do that.’ And that’s totally true! That is what it is!”

For those of us who have seen “Tromeo and Juliet,” we have to agree the review is really dead on. The movie wallows in bad taste and never apologizes for it, and it becomes all the more entertaining as a result. It was great to see James Gunn at New Beverly Cinema talking about this cult classic because his enthusiasm for this project was contagious. It’s this same enthusiasm which carried over to the movies he worked on from there, and not just “Guardians of the Galaxy.”