Heavy Lightness & Serious Vanity
I am a postmodernist, whatever that means, even if it doesn’t mean anything. If it does mean something, it means that I am perpetually opposed to the idea of canon, of the idea that there are certain things that belong in the realm of capital-A Art and other things that don’t; while I think there’s such a thing as “good art” and “bad art” (and even there, I can’t forsake the quote marks that indicate arbitrariness and contingency), I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “not art”. I’m relentlessly in favor of expanding our definition of vital texts to include new art forms, disreputable genres, despised minorities, and uncomfortable expressions. All that said, I am also a creature of my culture, and there are battles that I lost long before I was ever born. With three cultural icons in particular, I think we who march under the post-structuralism banner would do well to just cede the fight: the Bible, the works of Freud, and the works of William Shakespeare.
It’s a lot easier to do in the former cases. The Old and New Testament are the religious roots of Western culture, but even the fiercest defenders of the vision of reality they offer and the beautiful aesthetic works they have inspired will admit they’ve come at a pretty heavy cost over the years. Freud took the Western world by storm so quickly that it was inevitable that a backlash would happen almost immediately; nowadays, most people have settled comfortably into the idea that Freud was incredibly important despite not actually being right about much of anything. It’s Shakespeare who presents the real difficulty to us canon-smashers. Even the most esteemed of European cultural icons benefit greatly from having the muscle of colonialism behind their public relations, but as Robert Graves, a man who knew a thing or two about imperial power, put it half a century ago, “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”
As a writer, indeed, Shakespeare is very nearly untouchable — something it pains me, as a foe of hyperbole and an advocate of contingency, to admit. In his plays in particular (one wonders how he would have managed the novel form), he does just about everything right: his mastery of the mechanics of plot is untouchable, turning like clockwork even when the plot itself is pure hoke. His characters, when simplistic archetypes, are the purest and most useful expressions of archetype, and when when complex, throw shadows of complexity in so many directions they are the rival of anything Dostoevsky could produce. His insights into human nature are staggeringly exact given that he was writing a hundred years before the word ‘psychology’ first appeared in English. And his use of language — well, it simply requires no decoration. Every English speaker still carries around words, images, and phrases of Shakespeare’s as essential parts of their linguistic toolbox four hundred years after his death.
Great as he is — and he’s almost depressingly great, the kind of great that fills up all the space that other people might want to use to be great in — I almost wish I didn’t like Shakespeare as much as I do. I like him in that pervasive, lost-dog sort of way, that borderline uncritical way, that I used to like childhood obsessions like comic books. No better evidence of this exists than my boundless appetite for Shakespeare adaptations; good or bad, traditional or modern, straight or gimmicky, I’ll watch them all. I don’t love them all equally; certainly there are differences between the good (the BBC’s 1981 Othello with Tony Perkins and Bob Hoskins, the Macbeths of Welles and Polanski, Almereyda’s underrated Hamlet), the bad (Tim Blake Nelson’s goofy O, the absurd 2006 lesbian-gangster-witch Macbeth, Joss Whedon’s arch and plodding Much Ado About Nothing), and the bizarre (the crypto-fascist Richard III from 1995, Akira Kurosawa’s howlingly nihilistic Ran, the ultra-quirky Scotland, PA). But regardless of quality, I will give them all a chance while newer, less familiar, even better art sits idle by my bedside. Let those who doubt I would watch video of a barely competent high school production of Julius Caesar just because it happens to be on YouTube behold my browser history.
Romeo and Juliet is a perpetual favorite of Shakespeare adapters: its teen romance is a box office winner, it contains some of Shakespeare’s choicest dialogue, and it has a tense and intricate, if entirely rickety, plot. It’s also relatively easy to stage, has a lot of appealing roles even outside the ripe leads, can help launch a young actor’s career, and is easily adaptable to any setting or time period, because hyper-hormonal teens never stop lusting after one another, and people never stop harboring deadly and irrational prejudices against one another. That’s what’s in its favor. What works against it: for one thing, since it practically demands the lead characters be gorgeous, achingly oversexed young people, they’re forever at risk of being out-acted by even minor characters like Lady Montague. For another, it’s so easily staged that it’s produced not one, but multitudes of tremendously well-done versions, from West Side Story to Zeffirelli’s fiery 1968 version, against which any new adaptation will be measured.
When a new version of Romeo and Juliet was announced late last year, I had reason to be hopeful about it. While director Carlo Carlei was unknown to me, the script was written by Julian Fellowes, the clever British author who brought us Gosford Park and Downton Abbey; Juliet would be played by Hailee Steinfeld, who had so impressed in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit; and it would be filmed in period style at a number of authentic Italian locations, including the actual parapets and towers of Verona. 2013 being a rather rich year at the movies, I lost track of the movie when it was released, but it showed up last week on Netflix Instant, and I sat down over the weekend to what I hoped would be, if nothing else, at least a handsome and well-written interpretation of the play. What I got was, well, something entirely less.
Things start off badly, but you don’t quite notice at first; the excellent Stellan Skarsgård delivers an excellent reading of Prince Escalus’ warning to the two families, which seems promising until you later realize it’s the best performance you’re going to get in the whole movie, and it’s in service of nothing more than setting the plot in motion. There are some solid bits of casting along the way (Mike Leigh veteran Lesley Manville is excellent as Juliet’s nurse, Italian veteran Laura Morante is fine as — uh oh — Lady Montague, and young Kodi Smit-McPhee, the boy in The Road, is an interesting choice to play a youthful Benvolio), but there’s a giant sucking sound at the center where the burning intensity of the leads should be. Steinfeld is at least trying to do a good job; she’s, at least, acting, rather than standing around expecting everyone to notice how good she looks, which is what most of the men in the film are doing. But she seems more flattered at Romeo’s intentions, like she’s been asked to be lab partners with the smartest kid in chemistry class, than she seems consumed with aching passion. Worse still, and not her fault, is the fact that her Juliet has zero chemistry with Romeo, and, well, that’s the name of the play.
The casting of British TV actor Douglas Booth as Romeo was allegedly a three-year process during which he beat out hundreds of other candidates, but it’s impossible to see why unless the producers expected the movie to play out in a series of Tiger Beat covers. He’s certainly very broad-chested and handsome, but his acting could not be any more uninvolving, and fatally to the material, he doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in Juliet except insofar as the script requires him to. In Zeffirelli’s version, the director cast actual teenagers (older than the play calls for to accommodate modern mores, but young enough to suit his goals) rather than following the usual tactic of using twenty-somethings, because he wanted the screen to melt under the heat of the kind of boiling-over, life-or-death craziness that often accompanies the first sexual crush of a teenage couple. That level of overheated love/lust, where Romeo and Juliet literally plot their own deaths rather than consider ever being apart, is vital to a successful adaptation, but it’s sorely lacking here. Booth mostly acts as if he’s out of Steinfeld’s league, and at times is so passive that you can almost see him checking the clock to see how long it is before he gets to commit suicide. (He was 20 and Steinfeld 16 when the movie was filmed. Though Zeffirelli’s version rather famously employed nude scenes for both Romeo and Juliet, it’s not necessary; however, here, the impossibility of a widely-released mainstream film showing a nude 16-year-old girl rendered the crucial scene of their marital morning rather milky.)
Other performances are a let-down. Paris, Tybalt and Mercutio are affectless pretty-boys, and Damian Lewis (late of Homeland) is stern but dull as Juliet’s father; Paul Giamatti, capable of good performances when he’s engaged in a role, plays Friar Laurence in full-blown “free Italian vacation” mode. The sets and locations are lovely enough to look at, but not much is done with them; likewise, the costumes are competent without being spectacular. Carlei’s direction is a big fat nothing; if he brings anything to the film’s character, mise-en-scène, or visual style other than the ability to operate a camera properly, I didn’t notice it. Baz Luhrmann caught a lot of shit for his Romeo + Juliet in 1996, and rightly so; that thing was a piece of junk. But for all its multitudinous flaws, it at least had style and passion and energy, none of which are to be found here.
But nobody really went into this thing expecting much from Carlo Carlei, whoever that is. Julian Fellowes is surely the villain of the production, because he’s the only one who indisputably knew better. Fellowes is known for his savvy, class-conscious observations of social interaction, but he could be forgiven for leaving it out here if he was determined to be faithful to the source material; it doesn’t give up much to sink one’s talons into in that regard. But, bizarrely, Fellowes — certainly capable of some flashy wordcrafting himself — shows no fidelity to Shakespeare’s bountiful language whatsoever. A few scenes aside, Romeo and Juliet bears almost no resemblance to the play in terms of lines, most of which are rewritten, and never for the better. It’s as if he took one look at the play for the first time since his Ampleforth College days and reckoned, well, fuck it, no one’s reading this rubbish for the words. He keeps the story, conversely, entirely intact; but nobody reads this stuff for the crackerjack plots, especially when they’re brought to screen as lifelessly as Carlei does. It’s impossible to know if Fellowes really thought he was improving on Shakespeare, or if he was intentionally dumbing it down for what he perceived as an audience of wit-immune teenagers, or — who knows? Maybe he thought he might get sued. Whatever the reason, it all adds up to a passionless, plain, and oddly humorous thing — what Shakespeare, with Romeo’s tongue, called “heavy lightness and serious vanity, a misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms”. Head back to ’59 or ’68 and wait for the next version of Romeo and Juliet; there’s always one coming.