If heartbreaking love stories like “Steel Magnolias,” “The Notebook,” “Titanic” or “Love Story” are up your alley, you will want to get yourself to the theater for the retelling of one of literature’s most tragic love stories: “Romeo & Juliet.”
Shakespeare’s tale of the star-crossed lovers has been reinterpreted for movie audiences in 2013, and the decision was made to present the saga in such a way that you needn’t be a student of Shakespeare to understand it — although the language is still very much old English.
So while the Bard’s traditional, romantic story remains intact, the update for modern audiences, which is visually very appealing — might be perceived by some as dumbing it down. But for Douglas Booth, who plays Romeo, working on the film was inspirational.
“We grew up in England with Shakespeare,” the handsome British actor tells eHarmony. “But not until I worked on this film did I truly fall in love with his text. Since doing it, I have seen so many more of Shakespeare’s plays on stage because they’re brilliant.”
While Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Juliet, adds, “Before we had started, [screenwriter] Julian [Fellowes] said something that stuck with me ever since. He said, ‘This generation deserves their own Romeo and Juliet.’”
For that very reason, Fellowes, best known here in America as the creator of “Downton Abbey,” which has its own tragic love stories, agreed to write the script. But there was an additional appeal. For Fellowes, who is a fan of the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film version, the whole business of love ending up in death is something he grew up on. He cites tragic American ’60s teen love songs, such as “Tell Laura I Love Her” and “Leader of the Pack,” where the boyfriends die in car crashes, as being his source of adolescent culture that makes him respond to tales of tragic love to this day.
“There is something about the ultimate sacrifice to preserve your love, which is completely pure and takes over your life, that we all find very appealing because it is an ideal that most of us don’t live up to,” Fellowes says. “What we like about these lovers is they don’t think that. They go all the way and, in the end, they would rather die than be apart. It somehow chimes with first love and early love, which we have all been through. ‘Romeo & Juliet’ more than any other story brings that back to us and takes us back to that emotion.”
Early on in “Romeo & Juliet,” Romeo, as do so many young men, appears to be fickle. When we first meet him, he is passionately in love with Rosaline (Nathalie Rapti Gomez), but when he crashes a party at the Capulets — his family’s arch rivals — in order to be with her, and spies the blossoming beauty of young Juliet, he can’t resist the forbidden fruit.
“He very much lives in the moment to the most extreme degrees,” Booth says of Romeo. “He falls very quickly in love. He obviously didn’t find true love until he met Juliet. He thought he was in love with Rosaline, he was head-over-heels and he was busy carving a bust of her at the beginning of the movie. Then suddenly he sees Juliet … and he’s going to do anything he needs to do to be with his Juliet. Nothing will stop him. Nothing.”
To capture that feeling of intense attraction and forbidden love, Booth and Steinfeld took a couple of weeks in Italy prior to filming to get to know each other. And it was time well spent, because as movies don’t film in sequence, their first day of work called for them to shoot the balcony scene. It was do-or-die time.
“It takes work beforehand to make sure that you know who you are, you know your journey, so wherever you’re jumping into it, you know exactly where you’re supposed to be,” Booth says. “So you do have to make sure that you know how to maintain that kind of connection throughout the whole filming period.”
Steinfeld, who coincidentally happened to be reading the original Romeo & Juliet at school at the same time she was filming, adds, “I think as actors we have great chemistry. I think that was important for us to have that for the story to be impactful.”
And it is. Despite knowing how the story ends, the second half of the film catches viewers up in the emotion of the story, the desperate quest to get Romeo the message that his Juliet isn’t really dead, and Friar Laurence’s (Paul Giamatti) attempt to keep Juliet from following her Romeo into death. It is definitely a two-hankie movie.
But there is more to the movie than just the love story. The long-standing feud between the Capulets and Romeo’s family, the Montagues, provides a number of action sequences. Not the action of a Dwayne Johnson or Bruce Willis movie, but there are some pretty cool sword-fights that produced a few cut knuckles and grazes among the cast.
But at the end of the day, “Romeo & Juliet” is a movie about love, so we had to ask: What was the most romantic thing that someone has done for either of its stars?
Steinfeld demurred answering, and as she is only 16, we let her get away without a reply, but Booth, after much prompting, responded, “It was probably something quite small actually. I think the most romantic things are always small, kind gestures from people you love.”
“Romeo & Juliet,” directed by Carlo Carlei from a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, opens in theaters on Friday, Oct. 11.