While it's common for theater directors to stage both radically reworked and traditional productions of classic plays, movies are a different beast. Although Hollywood loves remakes, those happen primarily because the studios can sell them on name recognition, not because an artist has an idea about how to present familiar material in a new and enlightening way. Carlo Carlei's adaptation of Romeo & Juliet is much closer to being a traditionalist exercise than a bold reimagining, but the sharp script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes goes a long way toward making it a version of the story that can be easily embraced by a new generation.
The story should be quite familiar to most. The Montagues and the Capulets are two feuding families in the Italian city of Verona. When teenagers Juliet Capulet (Hailee Steinfeld) and Romeo Montague (Douglas Booth) see each other at a masquerade ball, they instantly fall madly in love -- even though the purpose of the festivities was to introduce Juliet to Paris (Tom Wisdom), the nobleman her parents want her to marry.
When a duel breaks out between Romeo's best friend Mercutio (Christian Cooke) and the Montague-hating Tybalt (Ed Westwick), Romeo is compelled to avenge his friend and slay Tybalt. Having already warned the two clans to live peacefully, the prince of Verona (Stellan Skarsgård) orders Romeo banished from the land. This, added to the fact that the two families despise each other, seems to squelch any hope that the two young lovers will end up together. However, with the help of Friar Laurence (Paul Giamatti) and Juliet's loyal nurse (Lesley Manville), a plot unfolds for the pair to be reunited.
What sets this particular version of Romeo & Juliet apart from the others is the script by Fellowes, which not only effectively streamlines the plot, but fuses chunks of the original text with dialogue created by the screenwriter. That might seem sacrilegious to purists, but it helps shape the film into a manageable story without sacrificing the poetic dialogue.
Thankfully, the cast are more than able to deliver that dialogue, and two performers in particular stand out above the rest. Hailee Steinfeld, not quite 17 at the time of this movie's release, impresses with her poise and her ability to project maturity. She proved three years earlier in True Grit, her remarkable film debut, that she could easily navigate the verbose and precise dialogue of novelist Charles Portis (as reworked by the Coen brothers). She confirms here that her previous work was no fluke, making her Juliet tragic and real without missing the nuance and beauty of the script. It seems plausible that she learned a great deal from watching Paul Giamatti, who shines here precisely because he's the only one who doesn't seem weighed down by the history of the text -- he makes this dialogue sound utterly natural and commonplace.
There are no real surprises in the movie: Carlei's direction is solid and unflashy. The entire production has been designed to appeal to teens skeptical that they can understand Shakespeare, but at the same time, it's been given enough tradition so it won't alienate those who love the source material. Franco Zeffirelli had a huge hit 45 years ago with an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet that took much the same approach to this material, and while it seems unlikely that this new version will become a similar phenomenon, it might just make a few brave young souls feel like exploring the work of history's greatest playwright.