Bringing Shakespeare to the big screen can be a two-edged sword. Shakespeare is dated; Shakespeare is timeless. Shakespeare is melodramatic; Shakespeare is poetic. Romeo and Juliet can be particularly challenging in that regard, as the audience has to buy into a love that is so instantaneous and so powerful that the main characters are willing to die for each other after only days. That is the key to success with the play; and unfortunately, the reason it fails here.
If you don’t know the story, you played way too much hooky in high school. The feuding families of Verona are the Montagues and the Capulets. Romeo (Douglas Booth), a Montague, spies Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), a Capulet, at a ball; and the two immediately fall in love. Slowly, the dominoes fall as the warring families, a loving nurse (Lesley Manville), and a paternal, if conniving, friar (Paul Giamatti) interfere with the young lovers.
The problem here isn’t necessarily the chemistry; the actors bring a fair degree of passion to their roles. The failing is in the direction. There are too many TV-movie stills of grasping hands and lingering glances and not enough emphasis on the passion that drives the pair. The language is handled beautifully and the acting is solid; but, for lack of Shakespearian prose, this retelling just lacks umph. It’s a 6.