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‘Romeo & Juliet’: Plenty of splendor, not much passion

Douglas Booth Hailee Steinfeld as Romeo Juliet.

Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as Romeo and Juliet.

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Juliet Hailee Steinfeld

Romeo Douglas Booth

Friar Laurence Paul Giamatti

Lord Capulet Damian Lewis

Prince Stellan Skarsgard

Relativity Media presents a film directed by Carlos Carlei and written by Julian Fellowes. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some violence and thematic elements). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: November 12, 2013 6:12AM

Despite the filmmakers’ best attempts, the latest screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic love story “Romeo & Juliet” lands with a dull thud. In an attempt to streamline the Bard’s words for a modern young audience, adaptor Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) has created a simplified version of this eternal classic.

Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) and British actor Douglas Booth (“Great Expectations”) hold their own in the demanding lead roles, but it’s a stretch to say there is much chemistry here. It’s the older actors, many of whom have performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, who shine: Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) as a demanding Lord Capulet, Lesley Manville as Juliet’s loving nurse and Paul Giamatti as the compassionate Friar Lawrence.

Directed by Carlo Carlei in Italy, the film’s visuals are lovely with stunning location shots outfitted in lavish sets and costumes. Yet there is a stillness, an emptiness that haunts the film. It lacks the mesmerizing, erotic grip so easily telegraphed in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 masterpiece starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, a film still seared into the minds of many of us who saw it as teenagers. Where the new version seems half-hearted in its storytelling, that earlier film evocatively captured the wonder of Shakespeare’s words, world and heart right down to the last kiss.

Mary Houlihan is a Chicago freelance writer.

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