Oh, Romeo: Julian Fellowes' Hilarious Improvements to Shakespeare

I’m pretty sure the dumbest way to die is killing yourself upon discovering that faking your own death has tricked your forbidden lover into his or her own suicide. The second might be to get gutted in one of the jumbled, perfunctory sword fights that clang up the streets of Verona in this rat-a-tat Romeo and Juliet, in which the be-gowned and be-tighted players, all costumed the colors of potpourri, speak dumbed-down Bardisms like “Spit it out!”, “Have you all gone mad?”, and Juliet’s opposite-of-immortal “I would exchange my bones for all your news,” loosely and hammily adapted from Shakespeare’s “I would thou hadst my bones, and I thy news.”

Here’s how the friar in the play describes the effects of his homemade Ambien: “A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse/Shall keep his native progress, but surcease.” And here are the words fed to Paul Giamatti in the movie: “Your pulse will cease,” spoken, like most of the film’s dialogue, on a set that looks less like Renaissance Italy than the backrooms of the Las Vegas Venetian.

The movie is to the play what a coloring book is to a museum.

Other actual dialogue from a script that snips away all thous and thees and poetry itself:

Random Capulet: “The man Juliet is with is not a Montague.”

Juliet’s Mother: “See if you can be happy with him.”

Nurse: “I must say you have good taste in men.”

Friar: “I pray you were not playing Satan’s game.”

Benvolio: “Shall I take advantage of his turn? I’ll try my chances with fair Rosalind.” (I think that one’s supposed to rhyme.)

Here are my two favorites. First, the husbands-suck joke given to Nurse as she tucks a restless Juliet into bed the night before she is to wed Paris: “Wait 10 years. You’ll sleep all you want.” You can almost hear the Married with Children audience going, “Ooooohhhh!”

Better still—perhaps the film’s one genuine delight—is one of the final lines delivered by the supremely game Giamatti, playing that idiot friar who thinks hatching a fake suicide plot is just the thing to help out the kids. Juliet lies in her tomb in fake death, and the friar learns that the exiled Romeo has returned to Verona in a state of great despondence, believing Juliet dead. The friar gives us an oh, shit! look and asks, the way Bob Hope might, “Did he not receive my letter?” How did screenwriter/adapter Julian Fellowes resist giving him a ruh-roh?

The leads—Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld—kiss, cry, and die prettily. The air between them never tingles, but maybe that’s the point—this is, after all, a story of two kids more in love with love than with each other. They consummate, but in a manner much chaster than in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1969 version. Waking up beside each other in bed the morning Romeo is to quit Verona post-haste, she’s still in her gown and his pants are still laced up. It’s all rote, dashed through, and somewhat detestable—why not encourage the tween audience to rise to the language rather than hide the words from them?

Once in a while, a line you may remember from English class—or, at least, sitcoms where the characters wind up in a production of Romeo and Juliet—is delivered intact: “What light through yonder window breaks”! “A plague on both your houses!” But reams of verse are discarded in favor of the occasional couplet. They give us the rhymes at the end of speeches/But not the beauty or fire in the heart or the breeches.

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