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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Julian Fellowes' Romeo and Juliet 2013 Film

As I mentioned yesterday, I made this past weekend a Romeo and Juliet weekend -- I saw a live production at Washington D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Theatre and I also went to see the new movie version.
So, today I would like to give you my thoughts on the film version.
I loved it!
It looked beautiful, the music is beautiful, and the story is so well told.

I enjoy simple stories well told. I don’t need a Romeo and Juliet with lots of distractions and a loud soundtrack. I want to enjoy the performances and hear the language spoken by talented actors.
Some critics have said that this film version is slow and bland, but I think it was deliberately old-fashioned in its pacing and storytelling. It wants to make the story clear, and it doesn't rush it at all. 
As such, I enjoyed this film very much, and I think you will enjoy it too. 
I think it should become the standard version to play in schools. While it does take some liberties with the play, it is as faithful as you would want, and it makes the story and the characters very clear.

Douglas Booth as Romeo

You should probably hurry to go see it, because it is not doing so well at the box office and might not be in movies theatres very long.
Sadly, it has not made much money. That is a shame because it is a lovely film that all of you should go see. 
And, if the film does not make very much money then it will be very hard to convince other film producers to invest in other future Shakespeare film adaptations.

Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet

The last major Romeo and Juliet movie was the great but sometimes too frenetic version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, by Baz Luhrmann -- in 1996!
The last major film version before that was the Franco Zeffirelli version -- in 1968!
Please go see this film and buy the DVD or Blu-ray! I don’t want to wait another 20 to 30 years before the next film version!
So, drop whatever you’re doing and go see this film now!
You will enjoy it. I certainly did.
If you saw the 1996 version, this new film version couldn’t be more different. This version is not set in the present day, it does not have a rock soundtrack, and the Montagues and Capulets fight with swords, not guns.
I love the 1996 version. But it is not faithful to the play. I bought the soundtrack like everyone else, and I’ve watched it several times since then, but if anything, it made me want to see a more faithful version of the play.
This new version is what I was hoping for.
It is very romantic, the actors who play Romeo and Juliet are excellent and excellent together, the other actors are all fantastic, the music is great, and it was filmed in the actual Verona, Italy!
Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet was an inspired choice. She was terrific in True Grit with Jeff Bridges, and her performance here suggests that she will have a long and great career.

I enjoyed her performance because she did not try to force it. She played Juliet as a girl who is in over her head and trying to make the best of a bad situation -- while falling in love with Romeo.
Ms. Steinfeld was 15 years old when she filmed this, and her youthfulness greatly benefits her performance and the film itself. It makes it more authentic.
Douglas Booth as Romeo was an excellent choice. I remember seeing him in The Pillars of the Earth, and he was great in that.

I was really surprised by his performance. He was only 19 years old when he filmed this, but he played the part with such command of the role, that I thought he had been performing Shakespeare for many many years. He made performing Romeo seem effortless.
The other actors were all very well chosen. 
Damian Lewis was perfect as Juliet’s father.  When he explodes in anger at Juliet, it is done very well, without pulling any punches.
Natasha McElhone as Juliet’s mother is also excellent. She is an actress who can do so much with so little, and she was very effective in the later part of the story, and especially when she thinks that Juliet has died.
Ed Westwick as Tybalt was great. He obviously loved to play such a bad guy, and he really sinks his teeth into the role.
Kodi Smit-McPhee, who was great in The Road and Let Me In, plays Benvolio. It is not a big role, but he turns the part into one of the most interesting, especially when he cries as Juliet’s body passes. Very touching.
Lesley Manville as the Nurse was terrific. It is one of Shakespeare's greatest roles and she makes it her own. 

Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence

But the one performance that I want to really single out is Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. Wow. He is such a talented actor, and he is great in everything he does. 
But he takes the role of the Friar and makes it just about the definitive version. There is not one false note in his performance.
When he discovers Romeo and Juliet dead in the tomb, it is truly powerful. If you aren’t crying by that moment, he will make you cry.
I would love to see him in some more Shakespeare, in just about any role. 
Julian Fellowes adapted the play for the screen. I have always enjoyed his work over the years, up to and including Downton Abbey. When I originally heard that he was writing this version, I was a little surprised. I wasn't sure what he had in mind.
But now I know. He, with the director Carlo Carlei, wanted to get to the heart of this story, and make a lush, romantic, and timeless film version. 

It may not be your favorite version of the play (it's hard to compete with Leonardo DiCaprio and music by Radiohead) but it deserves to be watched and enjoyed in its own right.
David B. Schajer

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