I loved it. And here’s why. (Even though the play is hundreds of years old, the movie did make some changes, and here’s a spoiler cut.)
1. Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld
I really appreciated that they’re both young and close to their characters’ “true” ages, but they really sold me on the love story. Hailee had a tendency to barrel through her lines, but it played well into the theme of passion being tied to hotheadedness that seemed prevalent to me. Douglas Booth brought such an earnestness to Romeo that I couldn’t help but be sucked in.
I’ve read this play. I’ve seen it on stage. I’ve watched various movie versions, including repeated viewings of Zeffirelli’s 1968 version. Yet throughout this movie, I held on to the hope that these two would get their happy ending, and it was mostly because of these two talented young actors.
This is a really, really pretty film. The costumes are wonderful and vibrant. I tend to associate the middle ages with grey and drabness, while I associate the Renaissance with color and brightness. This was definitely the latter - very colorful and intricate but with good use of shadow and low candlelight.
After reading about the language changes, I didn’t read anything else about this film, so I don’t know how much CGI they used. Some of the sets were obviously filled in with CGI, but they didn’t rely on it so much or so often that it distracted me. With the exception of those certain scenes, it looks like they filmed a lot of it on location in Italy, in which case I want to go to there. Beautiful.
Not to mention all the lovely shots of Romeo and Juliet’s entwined hands. I’m such a sucker for that.
3. The score
I love movie scores, but I’m not very good at talking about them. I noticed a lot of piano and strings, a lot of lushness. At any rate, I put the soundtrack on my ‘to buy’ list because it’s that gorgeous.
4. Capulet’s increased role
Admittedly, I haven’t read this play in a while, but I thought Juliet’s father (Damian Lewis) had much more screentime in this. Natascha McElhone as her mother doesn’t get much more to work with, but Capulet is shown as very loving toward his only child but also very tempestuous. This quick temper seems to run in the family, with Tybalt falling prey to it and Juliet showing signs of it, as well. I thought it was a great way to tie the family together.
5. The relationship between Romeo and Benvolio
Again, I haven’t read the play in a long time, but, much to the film’s benefit, the cousinly relationship between these two was drawn out. Benvolio seems almost like a younger brother who looks up to Romeo (and even entreats Rosaline on Romeo’s behalf in spite of his own feelings for her). Benvolio is a confidant for Romeo, brings him the news of Juliet’s death, and seems to be most affected by the lovers’ tragedy. And he’s the one who joins their hands at the very end, leaving us with a hopeful, if bittersweet, image.
Although I enjoy “faithful” retellings, I sometimes don’t understand the point of adaptations that follow the book and don’t bring anything new to the table. I’m still not sure how I feel about Fellowes cutting Shakespeare’s original words in favor of his own, but it really does work. Some lines can get awkward or feel heavy-handed (like at the end, the Prince says something about what lesson they can learn from this. It’s been a while, but I don’t think that happens in the play). For the most part, though, it’s very lyrical and adds to the film. If the changes help high school students understand the play, that’s fantastic. For me, I like that Fellowes very much stayed true to the spirit of the original, and that makes this one of my favorite movies of the year!