Review: 'Romeo and Juliet,' starring Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth

Carlo Carlei’s and Julian Fellowes’s Romeo and Juliet—I just can’t, guys. No. So many times, no.

I will be upfront right now and say that Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet is my favorite adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic text, and I have a master’s degree in literature, so I’m basically a hipster asshole. I want a version of Romeo and Juliet that is simultaneously true to the text but also modern and creative, and so, yes, Luhrmann’s version works for me. Also, beautiful young Leonardo DiCaprio! And Claire Danes in the early days of her perpetual cryface! And Quindon Tarver covering Prince’s “When Doves Cry”! I could go on a lot longer, guys. It. Is. Excellent.

This version, however—not excellent. And especially not sexcellent, since the leads have no chemistry whatsoever. Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth look at each other like they want to pass notes in gym class, not tumble into bed together. And yes, I understand that Steinfeld was 15 during filming and Booth was 19, and that four-year age gap is a little creepy, but hey, it’s basically the only true-to-the-original-text thing this movie has going for it! Oh, and it was actually filmed in Verona, where the play was set. So location and actors’ ages = pluses. Everything else = negatives.

It feels unnecessary to go over the plot of Romeo and Juliet, because every single person knows what it is—teens from families who hate each other get married and then end up tragically torn apart, double suicide, “plague on both your houses,” etc. And of course, Carlei and Fellowes don’t mess with that basic structure. But Fellowes alters much of Shakespeare's language, simplifying and rewriting speeches and monologues and dialogue into one or two throwaway lines that simply move scenes forward. It's a choice that really strips the story of its impact, reducing the poetic beauty of the text and severely lessening the context. The most well-known lines are still here, the “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” and “Juliet is the sun,” that kind of thing, but other elements are severely downplayed—how the rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues developed over time, the friendship between Mercutio and Romeo, the role of Friar Lawrence and his ensuing guilt over helping Juliet and Romeo. It all feels flattened out, Cliff’s Notes-ified.

Where’s the danger, the sex, the tension? The tragedy is still here, but without those other elements, it means nothing. You won’t cry for these characters; you never feel their love. Steinfeld and Booth stumble over the language (even Fellowes' streamlined stuff), look mismatched together, and don’t convince us of their affection. Ed Westwick as the fiery Tybalt, in a fantastically terrible wig, is even more unbelievable. The only people who come out unscathed are Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet and Paul Giamatti as Friar Lawrence, who both bring good intensity to their roles. Lewis is especially frightening as Juliet’s controlling father, and his severe wig adds to his insanity. Never trust a guy with an old-timey bowl cut. 

But with their roles limited by Fellowes’ slash-and-burn strategy, Lewis and Giamatti can’t turn the tide. This Romeo and Juliet is set on its disappointing course, and it can’t be deterred. What a bummer.

Guttenbergs Rating: 1 out of 5