Carlo Carlei's Romeo and Juliet joins Joss Whedon's lively Much Ado About Nothing and the four-history-plays-in-one TV miniseries The Hollow Crown as the latest Shakespeare adaptations released this year. Working from an adaptation by Downton Abbey mastermind Julian Fellowes, Carlei's film is pure chalk at first. However, once its teenage leads find their footing, it becomes a respectable, thoughtful tribute to the grandest dumb teenage romance of them all.
The star-crossed lovers in Carlei's film have somehow acquired a new level of self-awareness: As they flirt and coo and promise each other the world, they seem to stand beside themselves, as if there's a part of them that can't believe they're falling so deeply in love. Douglas Booth, with his flowing hair and his Lego man's head, plays the balcony scene with True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld perfectly. His physical desire for Juliet is equaled by his deep respect for her, and he doesn't fall prey to the dippiness inherent in the role. Their romantic scenes are simultaneously ardent and chaste. And Steinfeld is magnificently composed throughout; she gives her "what's in a name?" speech a precocious, adult elegance.
The monumental architectural surroundings — brick walls, dining halls, staircases, family mausoleums — grow more expressive as the romance takes its inevitably tragic turn. In the second half of the film, Paul Giamatti emerges as a gruff, hardscrabble Friar Laurence. It's his best role in what feels like years. Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville plays Juliet's nurse as a woman whose compassion far outweighs her buffoonery.
Romeo and Juliet