Romeo and Juliet

(2013) no stars Pg-13
118 min. Relativity Media. Director: Carlo Carlei. Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Ed Westwick, Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Lesley Manville, Christian Cooke, Stellan Skarsgard, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natascha McElhone, Tom Wisdom, Laura Morante.

/content/films/4594/1.jpgSo your source material is one of the top-five greatest works of dramatic literature. What do you do? Give it a page-one rewrite, of course. That's the approach taken to the new version of Romeo and Juliet.

The offender is screenwriter Julian Fellowes: Oscar winner, Downton Abbey creator, and someone who doesn't want to run into me in a dark alley. Full disclosure: I love Romeo and Juliet, and you mess with it, I take it personally. Zeffirelli's 1968 version remains, though not definitive, the best film version. Concepts like a modern-dress updating (Baz Luhrmann's problematic but creative 1996 version) are valid, as are total-rewrite Shakespeare adaptations that create something new (a la West Side Story or Othello done as the high-school basketball melodrama O). But Fellowes' "Shakespeare Made (Sl)eazy" bowdlerization, directed by Italian filmmaker Carlo Carlei in a pretty Renaissance Verona milieu, is misleadingly similar to the original while constantly futzing with the text.

Take Romeo's heartsick appraisal of love: "Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;/Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;/Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears./What is it else? A madness most discreet,/A choking gall, and a preserving sweet." Fellowes' rewrite: "Love is a smoke, raised with the fume of sighs./A madness drenched in syrup, choked with rage." Well, it's shorter. (And as creative writing goes, it qualifies as staggering arrogance.)

Or the Friar's key speech about the duality of nature (and human nature): "The earth, that’s nature’s mother, is her tomb./What is her burying grave, that is her womb./And from her womb children of divers kind/We sucking on her natural bosom find,/Many for many virtues excellent,/None but for some and yet all different./Oh, mickle is the powerful grace that lies/In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities./For naught so vile that on the earth doth live/But to the earth some special good doth give./Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use/Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse./Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,/And vice sometime by action dignified..."

That one becomes "The earth is Nature's mother and her tomb./For good or ill, she gives us grave and womb./So varied are the qualities we find/In herbs and plants and stones that we may grind./All that brings health and life may also kill./All that is dark and fatal can and will/Contribute to our pleasures." It's like everyone learned their lines wrong: call it the Drunk History version of Romeo and Juliet.

The whole movie is like this, line after line—it's fingernails on a chalkboard for anyone who knows the play, though I guess those who read it once (if that) in high school will probably assume they're hearing Shakespeare the whole time. Maybe that makes it okay? They can just enjoy the movie? (Though the Romeo-as-Ken-doll performance by twenty-year-old actor and Burberry model Douglas Booth—opposite a hapless, fifteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld—doesn't help.)

The couple of nice moments (like the final tableau involving Benvolio) get choked to death by Fellowes' "madness drenched in syrup." Please steer away your loved ones from this tone-deaf travesty, this misbegotten farrago, this offensive, rank, charmless, near-lifeless, anti-romantic twaddle, a classic tale "told by an idiot." Want to know what I really think?

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