Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.
Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our Star Rating (1-5): 3 1/2
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
Carlo Carlei’s film—based on an adaptation by Downton Abbey-creator Julian Fellowes, takes a traditional approach in that it is set in Verona during the Renaissance era, and thus replete with lavish costumes and sets. Like good action movies today, Shakespeare begins his tale with a riveting action scene—a bloody brawl between servants of two feuding families, leading the Prince (Stellan Skarsgard) to intervene and issue a ban on further fighting on pain of death. Thus we quickly learn the setting of the tragic love affair. The Montagues and the Capulets hate each other, with only the Prince strong enough to keep them apart and preserve the peace, and safety, of the city.
With one notable exception, the cast of director Carlo Carlei’s production is fine, bringing to life the words that on paper look so formidable, but which, when read well, reveal how beautiful the English tongue can sound. Unfortunately the exception is Hailee Steinfeld (the young Oscar nominee in True Grit), who plays Juliet: she is not as bad as so many critics claim, but then I suspect they are comparing her to Olivia Hussey who so exquisitely played the character in Franco Zefirelli’s magnificent 1968 version of the story. That beautiful young actress not only looked like a young maiden of Shakespeare’s time, she also sounded like one!
Douglas Booth, a British actor, seems far more passionate than his costar, making us believe that the raging hormones of a teenager can indeed drive him to do impulsive and dangerous acts. Paul Giamatti as the sympathetic Friar Laurence made me realize anew what a central role the priest plays in the story. Apparently Romeo has looked to him as mentor and guide, so early on the morning after meeting Juliet it is to him that the love-struck youth goes to pour out his heart and seek his aid in an otherwise hopeless case of impossible love. When Romeo asks to be married that very afternoon, the priest, put on the spot, thinks that marrying a Montague to a Capulet just might bring the two warring factions together, so he consents (not at all what we preachers were told to do in such instances in our seminary pastoral care class!). I love this scene in the 1968 version because as the priest pauses to answer Romeo’s request, the cleric spies the chapel’s icon of the Crucifixion (same style as the one through which Christ called Francis to “repair my church” in another Zefirelli film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon) This depiction of God’s son bringing reconciliation between God and the human race leads Friar Lawrence to the thought of reconciling the two families through the marriage.
Some purists have complained that in this new version too much of the Bard’s text has been cut from the script, and yet I learned many years ago when I tried to follow the film dialogue of Hamlet along with my copy of the play that every filmed version drastically cuts the text. Film really is a more visual medium than the stage, thus requiring far less words. On the other hand, Fellowes restored an incident that Zefirelli cut out, the duel between Paris, Juliet’s intended husband, and Romeo at the Capulet tomb where Juliet’s body has been laid to rest until its entombment. I had completely forgotten this, thinking that the director stuck it in to up the excitement—until, back home, I got out my Yale Shakespeare and saw it there. (The notes reveal that it was the Bard who added this to a plot he had borrowed from earlier versions of the story.)
Fellowes actually shows us the journey of the novice monk Brother John, dispatched by Friar Laurence with a letter to Romeo explaining his plan of giving Juliet a drug to put her to sleep so as to escape her father’s plan to marry her to Paris. We do not see the journey in the play: instead, after the fact, Brother John explains to Friar Laurence his failure to deliver the letter by stating that he and his companion were sealed up by the authorities in the house of a plague victim and thus could not get out. In the film we see Brother John, to whom the father of an ill boy pleads to turn aside and cure his son, make the painful decision to stay. Later, after successfully ministering the boy back to health, he resumes his journey, making a comment about the ways of God and endangering one life for the sake of another.
Thus, despite some of the harsh criticism from other critics, I believe Carlo Carlei’s film is well worth seeing. Mention has already been made of the lavish costumes and sets. There is a shot of the wedding that is so beautiful that it could be framed—Friar Laurence and the pair are before the altar and above them is a hanging Crucifix. Wonderful symbolism of the fate of love in a world of hatred. The scene in Mantua when Romeo learns from Balthasar of the supposed death of Juliet is set in a room with a gigantic mural that stretches up and into the high ceiling—quite a sight! From what I could see it appears to be from one of the Greek myths.
Another nice touch of the director comes at the conclusion when, under the Prince’s tutelage, the two families are reconciled: someone ( Balthasar, I believe) steps forward and joins together the hands of the two lovers, visually underlining the reconciliation of former enemies that has just been affirmed by each of the grieving fathers. In addition, one of the best things for me about the film is that it sent me back to view the 1968 version, as I hope it does for you as well!
A note on the politics of the play:
It was interesting to read in the Yale Shakespeare that the Bard was interested in more than the love story, that his play, the antecedents of which include numerous Italian, French, and English novellas, plays, and poems dating back to the 14th century, at a couple of points is commenting on Machiavelli’s teaching of a ruler’s duty in The Prince. This political primer teaches that because a ruler’s chief duty is to maintain order and justice, the Prince of Verona failed in his duty at the very beginning of the play by not executing or sending into exile the perpetrators of the violence with which the play begins. Had he done one or the other, instead of letting them off with a stern warning, the feuding between the two families might have been forced to a conclusion, and the series of fights and killings that leave such a bloody trail in the play would have been prevented. The Prince seems to be aware of this in his final speech to the families, among which are the words:
“See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.”
The full review with a set of 8 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the November issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on November 4.