Romeo and Juliet, 2013 Edition

by Glenn on February 8, 2015

A (relatively) new film version of Romeo and Juliet (IMDB information here) has been out for some time. I watched it this weekend. Some first thoughts:

1. This new version is stunningly beautiful because Italy is stunning beautiful. Since Shakespeare places R & J in Verona and Mantua, the filmmakers decided to shoot there and the results are fantastic. In fact, the overall production values on this film (I think it’s shot in digital HD) are wonderful. It’s a gorgeous film largely because it was filmed in a gorgeous place.

2. It must have been really cold. There are a number of daytime and indoor scenes where steam pours out the actors’ mouths as they speak their lines. It’s a little distracting. Rather than listening to the lines being said, you are thinking, “Wow, it must have been really cold. Why aren’t their teeth chattering?”

I only point this out because one imagines Shakespeare’s original hearers in London (I think R & J was written before the Globe was built, but it seems likely that it would have been staged there, at least eventually) standing around stamping their feet to stay warm, watching the breath come out of their mouths and being transported in their imagination to

“fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”

In this version, we’re actually in Verona but the weather suggests it’s not fair, more like England in winter. Just a little ironical.

3. While they don’t headline—for obvious reasons—Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence and Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet are first-rate and give first-rate performances. Since Shakespeare is as much about hearing the play as seeing the play, these actors give us the words beautifully. Paul Giamatti, especially, has a voice you want to listen to. I think they made up the word mellifluous for him.

4. Hailee Steinfeld is adorable. But I write it again (actually I’ll just cut and paste), Shakespeare is as much about hearing the play as seeing the play. For me, the acting, by which I mean the speaking of the lines, is a little uneven. Some of this may not be the fault of the actors as the script was altered.

5. I support fresh interpretations. To my mind, Sir Kenneth Branagh is just phenomenal at this. Off the top of my head he has done:

Henry V
Much Ado About Nothing
Love’s Labour’s Lost
As You Like It

What is true of all these productions is that they are all wildly different in how they are set. Also true, the text of the play, though edited, is left largely in tact without additions. The one exception is Love’s Labour’s Lost, where song-and-dance numbers are included, but even those additions make a kind of sense. (Watch it. It’s great. It’s controversial because of the music and setting, but I thought it worked beautifully. That’s another post.) And, please, Sir Kenneth, make more Shakespeare films. The Winter’s Tale?

What happens in this production is a kind of hybrid Shakespeare. It’s not a story by Shakespeare, like West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) or 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew) or She’s the Man (Twelfth Night), but it’s not Shakespeare, either, because the script has been tampered with pretty extensively, ostensibly to make it more accessible. But is it better? Perhaps it will work for anyone who is coming to the the play for the first time, but if you are at all acquainted with the text, this production can be a bit jarring at times. Take the opening,

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

And so the prince has called a tournament
To keep the battle from the city streets
Now rival Capulets and Montagues
They try their strength to gain the royal ring.

Whoa, what happened after “… makes civil hands unclean”? No “fatal loins” or “star-cross’d lovers,” but a tournament? Shakespeare’s opening is a spoiler. He tells you what’s going to happen—Romeo and Juliet will die. His genius is in how he tells a story they knew the ending of. This version only offers a starting place. What’s odd is this formal emphasis on a tournament, when the tournament soon will be forgotten as the story unfolds.

Here was another place where I struggled with the updating. In the original we have:

Tell me, daughter Juliet,
How stands your disposition to be married?

It is an honour that I dream not of.

I love that line of Juliet’s. But in this version it becomes,

Tell me, daughter,
What do you think of marriage?

I never think of it.

The conundrum in updating the text (handled, in this case, by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame) is that in gaining understanding you lose a little something. In this same scene, early on in the play, Lady Capulet is telling her daughter that there is a boy, the County Paris, who wants to marry Juliet and that Juliet really needs to warm to the idea. Juliet says,

I’ll look to like, if looking liking move:
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.

This is a challenging set of lines. They go by pretty fast as you listen and even though I’m an English major who has taught high school English, including this play, I have to sit in a quiet room to parse these words. I think she’s saying, “I’ll check him out, but I won’t like him any more than you give me permission.” But I love the alliteration of that first line and a good actor will convey the meaning well enough. In this new version, the line becomes,

“I’ll look and try to like him if that’s my parent’s wish.”

I understand better and like it less.

In this adaptation, Mercutio says an odd thing just before he dies. You may recall (or, spoiler alert), Romeo, unintentional serial killer that he is, grabs Mercutio while he is in the middle of a sword fight, which creates an opening for Tybalt to stab Mercutio. It’s really sad because Mercutio is a good guy. Romeo says something about being sorry, I don’t remember exactly, but obviously he didn’t mean for it to happen. And Mercutio says,

“The best intentions are the way to hell.”

What’s odd about that line is that it isn’t Shakespeare. If Wikipedia is correct, that’s John Milton in Paradise Lost, written 70 years or so later:

“Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.”

There are so many quotables by Shakespeare, it seems strange to include one by Milton. In the play, as he dies, Mercutio is both clever (“Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”) and vindictive (“A plague o’ both your houses!”), but not didactic.

6. In altering the script, there has been some work to even out the characters. The playing field has been leveled. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, this more accurately could be called The Capulets and The Montagues. Flat characters have been rounded, Rosaline for example. In the play, if memory serves, she never actually appears. She is a plot device. It’s a play called Romeo and Juliet and here is this character Romeo pining for … Rosaline? But then Romeo goes to a ball sees Juliet and says,

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

And so we learn that Romeo is impulsive. “Your heart never loved? Dude, you were catatonic a few minutes ago because Rosaline wouldn’t give you the time of day.” And we get a picture of young love. It’s like the weather in Portland—don’t like it, wait ten minutes—inconstant.

In this production we meet Rosaline. Romeo gives Benvolio permission to pursue her, so they have a little moment. She comes across as a real person, but then disappears.

In adding depth and dimension to so many characters (as well as adding plenty of sword fighting and kissing) and not increasing the overall length of the play, that necessarily requires that other characters will need to be flattened.

In the play, Juliet’s nurse is somewhat inappropriate, difficult to control, and the de facto parent of Juliet, who for whatever reason is disconnected from Lord and Lady Capulet. Here in this film, her lines are highly truncated.

The same is true of Romeo and Juliet.

Friar Laurence may be the only character unaffected in this process. He seems to be the level to which all the other characters are adjusted.

It’s a very democratic treatment that has gone on in this adaptation, but in making things more democratic, they have become less dramatic.

7. Why make this a theological work? The play is a tragedy with an asterisk, because while Romeo is a train wreck for sure (a tragic flaw of impulsiveness?), part of the messy end is contrived. After Mercutio is killed by Tybalt and Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, the final four deaths (Paris, Romeo, and Juliet on stage, Romeo’s mother off stage) occur because a piece of mail didn’t go through. It feels like Shakespeare is doing a bit of this:

I also remember one lecture—although, regrettably, I can’t remember the lecturer—who said, with a wink, this is a play about the danger of not getting enough sleep. (Romeo hasn’t slept well, pining for Rosaline. The next night, he meets Juliet and is up all night. The next night he consummates his marriage to Juliet. The next night he returns from banishment. No wonder his judgment is off.)

In the play there is a lot of talk about fate and foreboding and stars and the text feels mostly neutral about the divine.

When Friar Laurence meets with Romeo before Juliet arrives, he says,

So smile the heavens upon this holy act,
That after hours with sorrow chide us not.

Something like, “May the heavens be happy with this holy act of marriage, so nothing unfortunate happens later to make us regret it.”1

In this version, it’s a little more Calvinistic:

I pray the heavens smile upon this act
and not punish us with later sorrow.

And when the novice was distracted by the opportunity to do a good work and missed delivering the letter to Romeo, he says,

I saved a child but failed in my delivery.
God’s ways are hard for us to penetrate.

It feels like this script makes it explicit: it’s God’s fault that Romeo dies. I may be quibbling, though. Shakespeare is all over the map in terms of theological assumptions and why things happen, which is to say that his characters are all over the spectrum in terms of their theological assumptions. On one end you have Hamlet, the Calvinist, who says,

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will—

On the other end you have Beatrice, the astrologer (Much Ado About Nothing),

I was born to speak all mirth and no matter …
my mother cried; but then there
was a star danced, and under that was I born.

8. The longer the film went on, the more distracting the score became. Rather than anchoring us in a time and place it feels like a placeholder of sorts. “Hey, movies need music, can you add some music?” I’m not sure if and when I’ll watch the film again, but I missed a sense of leitmotif in the score or at least a connection to the action. We’re in Verona, the actors are wearing period costumes, and the music is out of place. And when there is a “live (period) band” at the Capulet ball, the music is  highly stylized. Maybe the composer should be praised for not being formulaic, but in the two most famous versions of Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zefferelli (1968) and Baz Luhrman (1996), there is a love theme that adds to the romance and heightens the angst. I didn’t think the music here helped.

9. All this to say I have a hard time evaluating this film. I give it an A for production quality, a B for the good intentions (which Milton warns us about) of trying to grab a new generation for Shakespeare, and a C for the overall result.

10. For fun I read the review over at Movieguide (here). They gave it four stars (out of four). Really? That good? Here’s one thing they had to say:

“ROMEO AND JULIET is a new version of Shakespeare’s beloved play about two young “star-crossed” lovers who find themselves in an impossible situation. ROMEO AND JULIET is a beautiful rendition of the classic play by Shakespeare, with wonderful performances and some important lessons.”

Not sure what those lessons are, but what I find so interesting about their reviewing system is the way they religiously document the content of films. For example, with this new R & J:

“Romantic worldview, following the passion of the moment, with Christian, moral elements of marriage in the church, counsel from a priest, signs of the cross, crucifix, prayer, images of Mary and baby Jesus, ‘God bless you’ is said, and the bad consequences of revenge are shown; one profanity, one obscenity; sword fighting, two men killed in sword fight, main character takes poison, other stabs herself, man slaps other man; kissing, implied sex inside of marriage; no nudity; drinking; no smoking nor drug use; and, revenge.”

On one level it’s great, because you know what you’re getting into when you go to see a film. On another level, it feels sort of naive, as though they are saying a film with a priest in it is going to be better for you than a film without.

The line that makes me laugh is the one that says, “counsel from a priest.” The presence of a thing doesn’t say much about that thing. For example, you don’t like alcohol and you go to a friend’s house and see a bottle of brandy. You really can’t conclude too much from that. It’s possible that that brandy was purchased to make Beef Bourguignon a year ago and has sat there unused since. It’s also possible that that bottle is replaced each week because the friend has a drinking problem.

I question the extent to which the presence of Friar Laurence in this film is a good thing for Christianity and culture.

One of the themes of this play is that the adults are out of touch with the kids. Romeo’s parents talk to Benvolio about Romeo, rather than speaking to Romeo; Juliet’s parents for whatever reason are all but estranged from their daughter. The nurse is a co-conspirator with Juliet until  Romeo is banished, then she takes the side of Juliet’s parents and encourages her to marry Paris. Suddenly Juliet is totally alone and desperate. The time she needs a parent, there isn’t one. It’s sad.

And then there’s Friar Laurence. He sees all the problems in the city and sees that Romeo and Juliet are head-over-heels for each other and concludes that he should go ahead and marry them in secret to bring peace to the town. What kind of counsel is that? “You two met each other last night? Well, great, let’s get you married—today—without your parent’s knowledge!” And then when Romeo is banished and Juliet is in dire straights because she is to be married off to Count Paris, he comes up with Plan B, to fake Juliet’s death.



One comment

[…] I watched a newish film version of Romeo and Juliet, which I wrote about here, and thought I would go back to the […]

by 2015 Reading List [a work in progress] « on 24 February 2015 at 1:10 pm. #