Review: Romeo and Juliet, 2013

 a sufficiently entertaining, adamantly old-fashioned adaptation that follows the play’s general outline without ever rising to the passionate intensity of its star-cross’d crazy kids

By Manohla Dargis, New York Times Review 2013

Romeo and Juliet is still taught more than any other text in American high schools, and since it’s a play not a book, teachers will inevitably want to show a movie in class to show some of the action to the students. Since this is the most recent high-profile film version of Romeo and Juliet, it seems inevitable that this will be the one teachers will show to students, so I will try to review this film from the point of view of an educator, not a Shakespeare fan.

The Concept

This film was financed by the Swarosvski Crystal Company and in the words of their own chairperson, the film is an extension of the Swarosvki brand. So if I were to describe this film’s concept it would be to dazzle the viewers with expensive costumes, exotic locations, beautiful visuals, and young, attractive actors:

To be clear, I agree with the director that Shakespeare should be updated every few years to keep it fresh and relevant. However, I would argue that this film doesn’t go far enough to make this concept fresh, and this version is destined to age poorly. Without a unique view of the play other than- “love is pretty”, the film lacks vision and is not very distinct. That said, it perhaps is a good way to introduce young people to the play, as we’ll see below:

Changes to The Plot

The Act I Tournament

The film opens, not with two servants fighting (yet), but with a tournament between the Monaegues and Capulets, where they joust instead of fight to avoid bloodshed. It is a striking image to be sure, and it is less confusing than starting a fight over biting a thumb, but it is a little odd that the Prince has this tournament to avoid street fights, and then they wind up fighting anyway over the results of the tournament. It works within the story but it makes the Prince seem dumb and it adds little to the story other than spectacle.

The Dialogue

As you can see from this clip, the dialogue of this film is changed liberally. The writers change Shakespeare’s lines to make them sound less Shakespearean. They also heavily cut the speeches to shorten the duration of the film. Cutting long speeches and substituting a word here and there is pretty standard for most Shakespeare movies, but what I find really irritating in this film is the number of lines that they add. It’s generally understood in Shakespeare that a director or actor can subtly change a few lines in a play- change pronouns, change an archaic word or two to make it easier for an audience, but this movie has the dubious record for most lines added to a Shakespeare movie. Some of these lines are paraphrases of the Shakespearean text, like all the dialogue of Sampson and Friar Laurence’s speech explaining the sleeping drug plan to Juliet. Some of the additions are character lines, like the scene where Benvolio admits he wants to woo Rosaline, (which to be fair, is an interesting change and I don’t mind it). Finally, some of the lines are designed to summarize speeches that the script cuts.

I know I sound like a purist here, but I feel that if you’re going to do Romeo and Juliet, use the text of Romeo and Juliet, and don’t change it unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you’re going to do an adaptation like Gnomio and Juliet or Tromeo and Juliet, you can throw out the Shakespearean dialogue and play around with dialogue using the plot and characters Shakespeare wrote. This film does neither- it mangles Shakespeare’s text but rigidly adheres to the story and characters, so it fails to pick a lane between faithful depiction or creative adaptation.

Small changes:

  1. Mercutio is a Montegue now. This matters because in Shakespeare’s version, he was related to the Prince, which is why the Prince takes pity on Romeo for avenging Tybalt’s death. Changing his allegiance robs his death of some of the tragedy that he was a neutral party who got caught up in other people’s quarrels.
  2. Tybalt is in love with Juliet, which admittedly, I’ve seen in other productions. It gives him more motivation to hate Romeo and makes him even more distasteful to the audience.
  3. Sampson and Gregory appear, but they are not named, nor do they bite a thumb.
  4. Benvolio’s role is merged with Balthazar and the actor is the youngest person in the cast. I honestly like this change a lot- Balthazar is a great character but he is functionally identical to Benvolio in the plot, so merging the two parts makes a lot of sense. Both Balthazar and Benvolio spend the play looking out for Romeo yet Benvolio disappears once Tybalt dies, so giving the actor Balthazar’s lines is a welcome change. Now Benvolio is literally with Romeo to the end, which makes us feel sorry for Romeo and his best friend.
  5. Benvolio is in love with Rosaline and makes a play for her after Romeo falls in love with Juliet. This might be a subtle nod to their relationship in the novel “Romeo’s Ex.”
  6. Rosaline is Juliet’s cousin now, which is not mentioned in Shakespeare’s version.
  7. Rosaline actually speaks, remarking on the foolish nature of silly Romeo, the Montague, and the Capulets. She still has no effect on the plot though, and her dialogue adds nothing.

Concerns for Teachers

If you are a teacher, I would recommend you show parts of the movie, specifically the fights and some of the action in the second half rather than the whole thing, but once you read the rest of this review, you can draw your own conclusions. As I mentioned before the Shakespearean dialogue is heavily cut, new ‘modern’ dialogue is added in, and even some of the action is also changed. Because of this, DO NOT TRY to read the play along with this film, as your students will get extremely frustrated. In my class, I actually played a game where the students write down what the movie changed from the play to try and get them to engage with it. I would also recommend asking questions or quizzing the students on the plot or the famous lines since those are more or less intact.

According to Common Sense Media, the film is relatively tame for students, (which of course was one of the goals of making it), so the violence is toned down, there is little nudity and little cursing (there actually is a little PG-13 language added near the beginning, but not much).

Screenshot from a review of the 2013 film from Common Sense Media:

The Production

Though the film is populated with English and American actors, the majority of the crew is Italian and principal photography was done in Italy, both on-location in places like Verona, Mantua, Rome, and other Italian locations.

Historical Context

The original story of Romeo and Juliet is set in the 1400s but based on the references to contemporary fashion and music, we can assume Shakespeare set his version around 1593- (the year it was probably written). This production, based on its fashion and architecture is probably set around the early Baroque period, (c. 1600).

This time period was notable for abandoning neck and sleeve ruffs in favor of lace or linen collars (Source: . The famous pumpkin pants were also replaced with less fussy breeches as well. All these fashion choices are in the Romeo and Juliet movie and it’s fascinating to look at the choices they made for the film in behind-the-scenes documentaries. I shouldn’t be surprised here, but studying this period made me enjoy the film more- I lost myself in the spectacle and ignored their handling of the story.

The Costumes

Costume featurette from Romeo and Juliet (2013)

As you can see from the close-ups above, the Swarovski Crystal company definitely showed off some of their wares in Juliet’s costume. In fact, Swarovski sells a version of Juliet’s wedding ring.

You can also see in these costume renderings the influence of Pre-Raphelite artwork on the costumes, like this famous painting by Francis Dicksee (1884).

Frank Dicksee. Romeo and Juliet, 1884

The Sets

Many of the street locations for Romeo and Juliet were filmed at Cinecitta Studios in Italy, but as you can see from this behind-the-scenes footage, most of the film was filmed on location in beautiful real-life baroque buildings in Italy:

The Locations

Many of the locations remind me of the high baroque architecture of the celebrated Italian sculptor and architect Gian-Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), who had his own Romeo and Juliet-style drama in terms of sordid love affairs, duels, and exiles:

The film was shot in some of the real locations of the play; MantuaCaprarola, Lazio; Cinecittà, Rome; and in Verona.[14]

One location I found very interesting to research was the Grotto of Sacro Speco in Subiaco, which was the location for Friar Laurence’s cell. This is a very holy site to many Catholics- it is the celebrated Cave of St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monks. Friar Laurence is a Franciscan monk so this isn’t entirely accurate, but it does provide some wonderful religious eye candy during the scenes at his cell, and it does beautify the wedding scene.

The Music (rant alert)

THE MUSIC NEEDS TO SHUT UP! Especially in the love scenes, I feel like the music is too loud and drowns out the dialogue. I also find it irritating that the score makes so much use of the piano, which wasn’t invented until 1700 since the movie is trying to be historically accurate. To be fair, the loud piano is actually the sound department’s fault, but the fact that pianos didn’t exist at this time took me out almost as much as the overpowering score, (which somehow won two International Film Music Critics Awards (IFMCA)!

The Cast

Reviewers usually love to rag on whoever plays Romeo and Juliet. It’s kind of a no-win scenario here- If they’re young, they’re inexperienced and thus, don’t know how to speak Shakespeare. If they’re older, they’re too old and shouldn’t have been cast in such a youthful role. So rather than falling into that trap, I’ll be positive about the casting and say what I like about the performances, while criticizing the direction, because I feel that in general, the acting in this film is fine, but there are some odd choices that the director should’ve thought twice about.

Romeo (Douglas Booth)

Booth might actually be my favorite film Romeo- he’s beautiful to look at, sweet, impulsive, naive, everything Romeo should be. He also knows how to deliver Shakespeare and can convey complex ideas through poetry. I could argue that he lacks the rage that Romeo should have when killing Tybalt, but I don’t think that’s what he was going for this Romeo is a good guy who is too sheltered and lacks proper guidance, so he makes rash choices because nobody is there to tell him why they are.

Juliet (HailiEe Steinfeld)

I don’t fault Ms. Steinfeld for this, but her worst scenes are sadly, the most famous. Her delivery during the Act I dance and the famous balcony scene is monotonous and dull. I think the director told her to act as if love put her in a trance, but the effect is that she sounds like she’s half asleep. Again, I know she can do Shakespeare because her scenes with the Nurse and Lord Capulet are much better; she’s passionate, articulate, and full of emotion. I think the director failed to give her proper direction to play a love scene realistically, and intentionally slowed the scene down so the audience could pick out the famous lines.

Lord Capulet

Some people argue that Lord Capulet is actually a good dad, but not this film. As I’ll show you later, this film is trying to play up the forbidden love aspect of the story, and what is more classic than an angry, disapproving father? To this end, even though Damien Lewis starts out jovial and sweet to Juliet, by Act III he is full of resentment and rage:

Damien Lewis as Lord Capulet, in a scene from Act III, Scene v

Tybalt (Edward Westwick)

In my opinion, Ed Westwick steals the show every time he’s on screen. He knows how to speak the Shakespearean lines and he makes the added lines sound Shakespearean (which is to say, actually good). With his fiery gaze and his thick, deep voice, he reminds me of a young Mark Strong and is equally good at playing smarmy yet compelling antagonists. You love to hate this guy, yet you feel sorry when he dies.

Friar Laurence (Paul Giamatti)

Giamatti rivals Pete Postlethwaite for my favorite Friar Laurence. He was a perfect choice and he has an effortless Shakespearean delivery. I think it’s telling that his lines of dialogue are the least altered from Shakespeare- the director knew Giamatti could make them work without any alteration. He also has a great rapport with both Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld.

Moments to Watch For:

This film does well at portraying the forces that rip Romeo and Juliet apart- Tybalt’s maniacal hatred of the Montagues, Lord Capulet’s scheme to marry Juliet, and the influence of maligning fate. For this reason, the film is actually better in the second half, once the romance is over and the tragedy sets in. Again, a lot of this is due to the excellent performances of Ed Westwick as Tybalt, and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, who frantically strains his brain to help the lovers and is thwarted at every turn. I wonder if, since the film was adapted by the creator of Downton Abbey, in which Giamatti starred, the writer placed most of the success of the film on Giamatti’s shoulders, intentionally or not.

My Reaction: Shakespeare for Twi-hards.

Forgive me for getting a little conspiracy-theory-ey here but, since the Twilight saga concluded in 2012 and this film came out the next year, I suspect that this Romeo and Juliet was partially produced to cash in on the success of Twilight. After all, Twilight: New Moon is full of references to Romeo and Juliet:

As the video below demonstrates, Twilight and Romeo and Juliet are both examples of Petrachian love, which is to say, love thwarted, so similar themes and tropes are baked into both stories.

There are also stylistic similarities to how this particular Romeo and Juliet are filmed, such as the lush landscapes, the prevalence of piano in the score, the heavy uses of glamour shots, and even some of the Italian locations evoke Twilight:

Worst of all, I feel that this film tried to make Hailee Steinfeld, an Academy Award-nominated actress, try to act like Bella Swan in the Balcony scene. I think this is why the first half of the film drags and seems slow and dull- it is trying to emulate Twilight’s visual style and forces the actors to adopt a “Twilight School of Acting.”

So in conclusion, the film is uneven- it has talented people working on it, but I think the studio and the company were a little preoccupied with selling the film to a specific group of young people. Does it work for classrooms? For now, but I worry that this version won’t connect with young people for long, and because of its lack of focus and clear direction, it will probably go the way of Twilight– a brief cultural blip that is pretty to look at, but that is quickly forgotten.

Title image for my online course on “Romeo and Juliet.”

If you like this analysis, you might be interested in signing up for one of my Outschool Course on Romeo and Juliet Link down below. Share this class with a friend and you will get $20 USD off!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s