#ForbiddenLove: A New Version of Romeo and Juliet

poster, Romeo and Juliet,  Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth

Amber Entertainment/Relativity Media

I am always in favor of a new version of a Shakespeare play hitting the big screen.  I loved Mel Gibson’s Hamlet almost as much as Kenneth Branagh’s version. While they were wildly different, both were beautifully filmed and featured extraordinarily gifted casts. And both, I have no doubt, brought new appreciation for the original texts upon which they were based. That, in my humble opinion, is the point.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has already been filmed more than 30 times, including alternate versions like West Side Story and the animated, Gnomeo and Juliet. It is, arguably, THE classic tale of star-crossed, ill-fated love and everything else is just some form of imitation. Having said that, I believe that every generation deserves it’s own version of this tale, “that of Juliet and her Romeo”. It’s a story of young love, first love.  While the themes will forever be fresh, the presentation should bear the faces of its current audience. (Believe it or not kids, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was 17 years ago.) This is the first Romeo and Juliet for the internet generation, so of course it’s being advertised with a poster that contains a hashtag, #ForbiddenLove, for Twitter users. No Facebook page, although there are pages dedicated to both the 1996 and 1968 versions (as well as the play itself), but I have no doubt one will soon follow.

I was already half in love with this new version, adapted by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and “Downton Abbey” fame, from the first still I saw of Douglas Booth. It’s not that I have some sort of unhealthy crush on this preternaturally pretty English actor, it’s that he looks so much like Leonard Whiting, the actor who played Romeo in Franco Zefferelli’s version in 1968. I grew up watching countless repeats of that one on television. Nothing has ever induced a squishy, girly, bosom-heaving sigh-inducing romantic feeling in me like the love theme, “A Time for Us” used to. I wanted to learn to play the piano so that I could play it.  An aunt had the sheet music and the soundtrack LP so I used to sing it into a hairbrush.  So while many of my fellow internet scribes may picture Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, when I think of Romeo and Juliet, I picture Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting.

I hear a chorus of owls at those two names. Olivia Hussey was only 17 when the movie came out and is still acting, although her most recognizable post-Juliet roles came in the 70’s with Black Christmas and Lost Horizon. Her Romeo fared less well. There’s not much of note on Whiting’s resume other than 1973’s Frankenstein: The True Story (a tv movie with Jane Seymour) and the fact that he sang back-up and did voice work on two Alan Parsons Project albums.

I think Hailee Steinfeld, who replaced Lily Collins, and Douglas Booth will fare much better. Steinfeld, of course, received an Academy Award nomination for her first film, the Coens’ remake of True Grit. She’s got two other films due out in 2013 as well: the possible franchise starter, Ender’s Game, and Can a Song Save Your Life with Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Next year should see Tommy Lee Jones 2nd directorial effort, The Homesman with Hilary Swank, with four other films in various stages of production.

Booth beat out Sam Claflin, Josh Hutcherson and Logan Lerman, but is still probably best known as Pip from one of the two versions of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” produced last year. He appeared in the BBC/PBS version with Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham and Ray Winstone as Magwitch. You can also find him as Eustace in reruns of Starz’s Pillars of the Earth (and if you have to, with Miley Cyrus in LOL). While the success of Romeo and Juliet may earn him a break-out role, it may also sentence him to a life in period costume.

If a new version of a Shakespeare play isn’t “updating” as in Luhrmann’s 1996 film set in Verona Beach (or Branagh’s Hamlet set in the Napoleonic era of the early 19th century) then I want faithfulness. I don’t expect anything from this new version of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Carlo Carlei (who has been toiling in Italian television since his last feature, 1995’s Fluke) and filmed in the actual gorgeous medieval towns of Verona and Mantua, Italy, other than sumptuous costumes and a faithfulness to the spirit of the thing with as much of the original text as possible.  Judging from this first trailer, I think that’s what we’ll get:

MTV has posted a new version, for the US market, that’s essentially the same. You can find it at the link.

In addition to the two leads, there are truffles like Kodi Smit-Phee and Ed Westwick. The pretty teenagers (okay, Westwick’s not a teenager. Work with me here) can lure the youth market. A beautiful, well told love story aimed at their hearts and minds is a rare thing these days.  (The key words being “well told”. This is Shakespeare. There be no brooding, sparkly vampires,  werewolves with six-pack abs, witches on the edge of the dark side or aliens in need of eviction here.)  For the adults, there is Mr. Fellowes’ screenplay, plus the rest of the cast is chock full of talented names like Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Lesley Manville, Tomas Arana, and Natascha McElhone… and Tom Wisdom (Astinos! Where have you been? 40 and still looks 22).

Romeo and Juliet, which debuted at Cannes last May, gets a (limited) US release on October 11. No word yet on the UK or anywhere else.

Will you see it? Do you agree with me, that the world continues to need fresh new versions of Shakespeare’s plays or are you of the “seen one, seen ’em all” school of thought?

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