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Romeo & Juliet (2013)

“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear to dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones.” –William Shakespeare’s grave

If you don’t take this weekend to see Gravity, Rush, or Captain Phillips, you’re either a moron or a hopeless film geek. Or both. Based purely on the crtitical reception of the latest wide releases, this is an awful weekend for cinephiles. Of course, there are still some high-profile movies this weekend that I’ll probably address in due time, but there are a few other movies I want to get to first.

First up is the latest adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” which is a film I’ve been looking forward to for months. Presenting the film in period and shooting on location in Italy? Great. Hailee Steinfeld playing Juliet? Wonderful. Stellan Skarsgaard as the Prince? Fantastic. Paul Giamatti as Friar Lawrence? My ticket is sold.

I’ve always been happy to see a production of Shakespeare, and I’ve seen better productions of R+J that had less to work with. Unfortunately, as I see the film’s pathetic 22 percent Tomatometer, I’m reminded that this play can go wrong in all manner of ways. The pacing and the cast — especially the two leads — have to be absolutely bulletproof or the whole production is worthless.

But no, this film failed for reasons that I had somehow completely failed to expect.

I mean, the film opened well enough. The prince’s monologue is told in voice-over as we see a jousting match. Thus, we have a dynamic visual representation for the Montague/Capulet feud. So far, so good. But then, halfway through the Prince’s monologue, he mentions a tournament.

*record scratch* Wait, what? The prince organized a tournament for the two houses to peacefully work out their differences? That wasn’t in the play. *looks up the text online* No, that most definitely was not in the play.

Not even two minutes in, and I was already entertaining thoughts of getting a refund.

Yes, the entire film presents the original Shakespearean dialogue, spliced in with stuff that’s been made up wholesale. The story remains essentially the same, but it’s portrayed with so much paraphrasing and added dialogue that tries and utterly fails to masquerade as the Bard’s work.

Sweet soul of Stratford, where do I begin?

First of all, yes, I’m going to make a big deal out of this. Remember, we’re not talking about some 40-year-old horror movie getting rehashed for a quick buck, this is William fucking Shakespeare. The guy whose work has outlived countless generations and will outlive countless more. The poet who coined so many commonplace words and phrases that he practically invented the English language as we know it. More than that, this is “Romeo and Juliet.” Quite possibly the most famous and beloved work in his entire legendary oeuvre, and arguably the greatest love story ever told. These are the characters, rhymes, sonnets, and tragic acts that are universally known because they’ve been played out repeatedly for centuries.

So when the play is being presented with this immense level of disrespect, it’s going to be a dealbreaker. I would not accept this from some community theater performance, and I won’t accept it from a multimillion-dollar production.

Secondly, the film tried to present its revisions as authentic Shakespeare dialogue. That doesn’t work, it’s never worked, and it will never work. Shakespeare’s poetry became immortal precisely because the Bard had such inimitable skill with words and rhyme. And again, his style is something that’s practically in our DNA at this point. As such, it’s impossible to try and imitate the master because at some level, we’ll always be able to spot a faker.

For the record, the script was written by Julian Fellowes, perhaps best known as the creator of Downton Abbey. The director was Carlo Carlei, whose work is comprised almost entirely of made-for-TV movies in his native Italy. And these two had the hubris to think that they could improve on the prose of William fucking Shakespeare. They thought that they could tamper with one of the most beloved plays ever written and no one would notice or care. They never stopped to think that they were doing a disservice to all the teens and young viewers (clearly the target demographic, given the casting and advertising) who were seeing this classic for the first time. How dare they.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m amply aware that “Romeo and Juliet” (as with all of Shakespeare’s works) has been the subject of countless revisionist takes. Everyone has their own vision of this story, and the script needs to be adapted accordingly. For example, if this film had been presented as a parody, I would have forgiven all the godawful Fakespearean dialogue. If the film had been a modernization or some other radical reinterpretation of the story, certain liberties with the text would have been completely understandable (see: West Side Story). But that’s not this movie. At all.

This film had so much going for it. Though certain members of the cast struggle with the authentic Shakespearean dialogue (which I choose to blame on Fellowes’ script and Carlei’s direction, given the nature of this adaptation), the actors were all impeccably chosen for their roles. The production design and the costumes are all dazzling from start to finish. The music… okay, the score was incredibly over-the-top (ditto for the camerawork and the editing), but the story is such that I can forgive a bit of melodrama in its presentation.

The point being that the filmmakers clearly went to extraordinary lengths presenting this story in the time and place that it was written for. This film has all the trappings of an authentic and respectful presentation. Yet this supposedly authoritative take on the play was done with a script littered with so much flimsy counterfeit dialogue trying to pass itself off as Shakespeare. I sorely wish that I had the Bard’s wit, so that I may adequately describe such treacherous blasphemy.

Instead, I can only say that Romeo & Juliet (2013) is an abomination. Though the cast turns in some good work and the film looks superlative, absolutely everything about this movie reeks of the filmmakers’ disrespect and ignorance toward the source material. I cannot believe that Julian Fellowes and Carlo Carlei tampered so heavily and clumsily with the source text while trying to pass off the result as authentic Shakespeare. Fuck the both of them. Seriously, when you’re scripting an adaptation of R+J that makes Baz Luhrmann look like a Stratfordian scholar, STOP.

Though the film looks like a good introduction to the classic play, it’s anything but. If anyone out there saw Anonymous and thought that Shakespeare finally got the cinematic treatment he deserved, this is their movie. No one else should dignify it with their time or attention under any circumstances.

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