Shakespeare movies don’t get more unremarkable than Romeo & Juliet, an adaptation of the English language’s most-butchered love story produced and financed by glass-jewelry manufacturer Swarovski. Directed by Carlo Carlei— whose last theatrical release was the 1995 “Matthew Modine is reincarnated as a dog” movie Fluke—the adaptation is a hodge-podge of bad clichés from Shakespeare movies and sappy romantic imagery. Actors in tights declaim in bloodless BBC accents while someone murders a piano’s sustain pedal on the soundtrack.
Aside from Damian Lewis’ eccentric take on Lord Capulet, no one seems to be acting as much as reciting iconic dialogue. Hailee Steinfeld makes for an unconventional-looking Juliet, though that doesn’t change the fact that she and generic hunk Douglas Booth seem to belong in different versions of the story. (The four-year age difference between the two probably wouldn’t be as noticeable if Steinfeld hadn’t been 15 at the time of filming.) As if to make up for the leads’ lack of chemistry, their glances at each other are shot in slow motion; this technique succeeds only in making the movie about 30 seconds longer.
The script, by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes, is a Wishbone-level synopsis of the play whose only major contributions involve slightly tweaking the ending and shortening the time frame. The romance is sexless, the passion impalpable. The protagonists are presented as pure romantic archetypes rather than complicated characters; everything that doesn’t fit that interpretation—like, say, the fact that Romeo murders someone on the way to Juliet’s tomb—gets rushed through or downplayed.
Though shot on location in Verona (in the dead of winter, if the actors’ visible breath is any indication), Romeo & Juliet looks chintzy. The Capulets’ masked balls is designed in Pier 1 Imports colors and texture, the lovers’ secret marriage is performed in front of a green screen, and when Romeo goes up to Juliet’s balcony, he climbs a plastic vine with cloth leaves. Walk-and-talk Steadicam shots abound; along with the hurried pacing (Juliet is dead for barely 10 seconds before the next scene starts dissolving in), they give the impression that the viewer is watching a hacky TV movie on the big screen, the sort of stuff that gives Masterpiece Theatre a bad name.