Carlo Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet—a lush, conventional bodice-ripper of an adaptation with a screenplay (by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) that borrows heavily from Shakespeare without quite being Shakespeare—feels like a quaint throwback to an earlier era in which a little-known director could just up and film a Shakespeare play, without big stars or a modern interpretive concept. I’m not sure how appealing this movie will be to the teen and young adult audience at which it seems to be aimed: Kids brought up on the cosmic battles and forbidden passions of Twilight and Harry Pottermay find the thwarted longings of the youth of medieval Verona too wanly special-effects-free to hold their interest even for its slim 118-minute running time. Still, there are reasons to see this Romeo and Juliet—it’s just a shame that Romeo and Juliet are not chief among them.
Young Ms. Capulet is played by Hailee Steinfeld, whom viewers of the Coen brothers’True Grit will recognize from her performance as the plucky young girl who convinces Jeff Bridges’ alcoholic marshal to join her on a mission to avenge her father’s murder. Now 16, Steinfeld makes a refreshingly not-out-of-the-box Hollywood Juliet. She’s very pretty, but pretty in a normal-girl-on-the-street way, with soft, almost babyish features and expressive, marvelously unplucked thick black eyebrows. Steinfeld has an open, childlike quality that’s well suited for showcasing Juliet’s youthful impetuousness and idealism, but she doesn’t quite pull off the transformation to tragic heroine, occasionally sounding a petulant Valley Girl note that I doubt was intended. (It doesn’t help Steinfeld, either, that many of Juliet’s best speeches are either cut entirely or pared down to the bare bones: her show-stopping “take him and cut him out in little stars” soliloquy is reduced to a one-line voice-over as we see Juliet scribbling at a desk.)
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