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The Independent Critic

Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Christian Cook, Ed Westwood, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Lesley Manville, Stellan Skarsgard
Carlos Carlei
Julian Fellowes, William Shakespeare
Rated PG-13
118 Mins.
Relativity Media

 "Romeo & Juliet" Underwhelming at Best 
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If you're like me, and most of you are not, then you found yourself more than a little bit suspicious and wary when newcomer Hailee Steinfeld found herself with an Oscar nod for her performance alongside Jeff Bridges in True Grit.

If you do happen to be like me, Romeo & Juliet will explain it all.

Steinfeld isn't just grossly miscast as Juliet, the passionate driving force of everything that occurs in Romeo & Juliet, , but she's so abysmal that it could be a career defining level of awfulness if, by chance, anyone actually happens to see this film. Steinfeld manages to say the words, but it's clear from the film's opening scenes that she hasn't a clue what they mean and how to communicate it. Steinfeld is doing nothing more than line reading here, and it's bad on the level of high school theater bad.  While many gave Steinfeld quite a bit of credit, in my estimation too much, for handling the unusual cadences of the language in True Grit, that all flies out the window watching her almost painfully try to enunciate and make sense of language that is nearly indecipherable as she delivers it. One almost pictures director Carlos Carlei watching the dailies and saying to himself "I have no idea what we can use here. It all sucks."

As Romeo, British actor Douglas Booth is only slightly more effective but the real disturbing thing with Booth's Romeo is that I'd dare say he's an awful lot prettier than Steinfeld's Juliet. If you caught Joss Whedon's version of Much Ado About Nothing earlier this year, then you already have a decent idea of how things should go in Romeo & Juliet. While Booth enunciates clearly, he has no sense of Shakespeare's rhythm and his scenes with Steinfeld not only fall short of romantic but they're laughably bad and bland.

The strange thing about Romeo & Juliet is that it would at least be a passable film if not for the presence of Romeo & Juliet. Homeland's Damian Lewis gets into a proper snit as Lord Capulet, while it appears that Oscar winner Paul Giamatti catches on fairly early that he's in a turkey of a film and amps up the volume on his performance as Friar Laurence with results that far outshine those of Booth and Steinfeld even if it is readily apparent that he's not exactly exerting any acting muscle here. Among the younger players, Kodi Smit-McPhee, as Benvo, has clearly done his homework and probably comes the closest to nailing the actual tone of Shakespeare's work. Natasha McElhone, as Lady Capulet, also nicely captures the story's understated darkness.

Abel Korzeniowski's original score is so syrupy one wouldn't be completely surprised if Aunt Jemima shows up, while screenwriter Julian Fellowes should be stripped of all the credibility he's earned for his work on Gosford Park and television's Downton Abbey. Fellowes takes tremendous liberties with Shakespeare's nearly perfect words and, in nearly all cases, he completely ruins the masterpiece that Shakespeare created. It was hard not to wonder if, perhaps, Fellowes was simplifying the script in the faint hope that Steinfeld might actually catch on at some point.

It doesn't work.

Romeo & Juliet is beautifully set in Verona and Mantua, though somehow everything other than the cities themselves looks gaudy and cheap. The film is the first foray into cinematic production by Swarovski, but rather than having a luxurious look it has the look of someone sitting in front of the mirror painting themselves silly with all the finest cosmetic supplies while singing "I feel pretty."

It ain't pretty.

© Written by Richard Propes 
The Independent Critic