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Sunday, 23 February 2014

Romeo and Juliet (2013)

Romeo and Juliet (2013).

In theory, making an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet should be the cinematic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel with a high powered sniper rifle at point blank range. You already have your script, and it's one of the most beloved stories in the history of the English language; you have a title that will instantly draw in an audience; and it isn't exactly difficult to find actors who have performed the roles before on stage. Romeo and Juliet should be the film industry's equivalent of a World War II first person shooter: Something that you can churn out with very little thought and still end up with something that isn't wholly painful.

So why on earth is Julian Fellowes' adaptation of Romeo and Juliet so painfully awful that every minute felt like I was trying to slog through mud?

That isn't an exaggeration. Every minute of that film, from the blandly narrated opening monologue onwards, dragged to such a degree that forty minutes through a one-hundred-and-eighteen minute film it became too painfully boring to continue and I had to switch off.

It would be nice if I could point at a single overriding issue, as I have sometimes done before, but instead I find that there's nothing good I can say about it.

The screenplay is an odd mixture of over-simplification, inaccuracy (“Mercutio, of the House of Montague,” is one of the earliest lines, thus instantly rendering at least two major plot points nonsensical), and fidelity to the text in the strangest places: Often it seemed like any sequence of dialogue that would contain even the barest trace of Shakespeares' characteristic wit was taken apart, simplified to its blandest and most straightforward form, and then reconstructed in painfully forced faux-Renaissance language.

Combined with the frankly appalling acting from the entire cast, from leads Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfield to unexpected big name Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, each one whispering their lines with the kind of flat, emotionless drone that in real life would bring a person under instant suspicion of being an evil robot, and the film is the cinematic equivalent of the colour beige.

This is not a story lacking for sharp, dramatic moments, and yet not a single one is capitalised upon. The crowd brawl of the play's beginning is replaced with the most sedate jousting tournament ever, where horses calmly trot towards each other while their riders delicately nudge at their opponents' shoulders; when the brawl scene does come around later, it is two minutes of lethargic pushing and shoving before Prince Escalus strolls past, mumbling something about how they should really stop that. The balcony scene is stripped of any kind of urgency, as Romeo and Juliet meander around reading their lines like Year Eights in English Literature. Mercutio's Queen Madb speech, which in better productions like Baz Luhrmann's is a show-stopper, is instead muttered while the camera gently flicks back and forth between a staring Mercutio and an equally staring Romeo, and Benvolio is left to quietly wonder if his friends are doped up on sedatives.

I can only be left with the assumption that this is a kind of prolonged character assassination against Shakespeare. Maybe he killed Julian Fellowes' parents and now Fellowes is seeking revenge by besmirching his good name. Maybe his revenge is not yet full-wrought and we'll soon be seeing a Hamlet production that no body can watch without falling into a deep, deep coma. 

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