This post contains spoilers for the 2013 Romeo & Juliet! If you don’t want to know about the differences in this adaptation, don’t read this post until you’ve seen it! (Also, warning for discussion of suicide, guns, knives, and poison.)
Because my best friend is the greatest human alive, they accompanied me to see the new film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet on its opening day, Friday, Oct. 11. We went to a matinee showing and were the only two people in the entire theater (until two boys snuck in about 10 minutes after the opening credits — they cried quite loudly at the end of the film. It was beautiful). I am always excited and nervous going into a new adaptation of this story. I love William Shakespeare and I love Romeo & Juliet and though I feel it is often overused in discussion of literary and Shakespearean canon, I do have a very soft spot for it.
Upon viewing the trailer, I had some reservations about the choice of Douglass Booth for Romeo. However, I was thrilled to see Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, and Ed Westwick as Tybalt. Now having seen the film, I am incredibly pleased with every member of this cast, including Booth. (I especially fell in love with Kodi Smit-McPhee, who played Benvolio — he is one of the youngest members of the cast and plays the role of Benvolio with a childishness that fits so well. His chemistry with Christian Cooke as Mercutio is especially notable, and I found myself looking for Benvolio more often than I have looked for him in any adaptation before this one. Having now checked Smit-McPhee’s IMDB page, I’ve discovered that he also voiced the character of Norman in Paranorman, which makes me so many kinds of happy I can’t even begin to describe them all.)
This adaptation, written by Julian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey” fame), presents the tragic love story of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet with more detail than I’ve ever seen before. Several new scenes have been added to the film, which was at first somewhat confusing but turned out to be really fitting. These additional scenes give the audience insight to the characters who are secondary to the star-crossed lovers — we learn about the perspectives of their parents, their cousins, and their friends. We see Lord Capulet attempt to keep Tybalt from fighting Romeo in an effort to maintain peace at the Prince’s orders. We see Lady Capulet beg her daughter to consider Paris for marriage. We see Friar Lawrence desperately trying to save Juliet from killing herself by swearing to give her a life hidden away in a convent. The secondary characters in Fellowes’ adaptation have considerably more screentime than in any other adaptation than this one. The characters’ lives are intertwined so heavily herein that it is impossible not to care about each and every one of them.
I was deeply impressed with the acting in this film, as I already mentioned. I was also impressed with the ridiculously lush scenery — I gasped out loud at the beauty of the architecture and cinematography of this film at several points — and I fell in love with the score, which was well-crafted enough that it contributed to the performances without taking away from them. Each component of this film fell into place in such a way that I couldn’t help but be awed. My initial reservations fell away very quickly and I just enjoyed the film — every minute of it.
The intimacy between Booth as Romeo and Steinfeld as Juliet was stunning. The thing that seems oft forgotten in interpretations of Romeo & Juliet is that the characters are barely teenagers when they fall in love, marry, and then kill themselves. Fellowes’ adaptation makes a point of displaying their ages full-out, with both Steinfeld and Booth looking and playing the parts of young, reckless children very well. Their ages are commented upon not only in the text from the original script, but also in the added scenes, and the overall effect is a very devastating, very cautionary tale for young lovers. This adaptation is just so good, in every way.
In fact, the one thing that I didn’t expect could get any better was the death scene. In the 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann, the original script played out in a modern setting. Fair Verona was in California and rather than swords, the Capulets and Montagues fought with guns. The death scene in this film was — until today — the most devastating adaptation I had ever seen. Rather than Juliet waking up to find Romeo already dead, then impaling herself upon his dagger, she woke up as he was dying, and the look on his face when he realized what had happened was devastating. They had less than thirty seconds to stare at each other and suffer the heartbreak of knowing they really couldn’t ever be together, now, before Romeo died and Juliet shot herself with his gun.
Obviously, the newest adaptation had to outdo the tragedy of that. In the 2013 film, Juliet wakes up seconds after Romeo has downed the poison — and the two share a kiss and spend moments together before he finally dies. It hurts. It hurts a hell of a lot, especially because Friar Lawrence enters the tomb before Juliet can kill herself — adding even more newness to the scene that makes the hurt worse and worse. He offers her an out, promises he’ll hide her away so no one ever has to know she is still alive — and then he’s dragged away to fend off the tomb guard, leaving Juliet to take Romeo’s dagger and join him in the afterlife.
This film, if possible, made me love this story even more, because it brought together so many of the elements from past adaptations that I’ve adored. It also added a wealth of new canons and perspectives that I had never really considered before, which to me is the mark of a really great Shakespearean adaptation. Though this film is a classical interpretation of Romeo & Juliet, it’s very new in the sense that it rounds out the story so well. I loved it. I loved it. And I’m so glad I got to see it in theaters, rather than having to wait for it to show up on my laptop screen via Netflix.