Written by Anna Harrison
Romeo and Juliet has been adapted and adapted and adapted, from Frank Zeffirelli to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to West Side Story and, now, to R#J. Each adaptation attempts to make its mark and stand alone in the annals of Shakespearean adaptation history, some with more success than others. (Who among us can forget 21-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio half-shirtless and screaming, “I defy you, stars”?) Director Carey Williams makes his mark on the Bard’s tale by showing it completely through social media and phones, and though this means R#J will be outdated in a decade, he gets points for creativity. That, unfortunately, is almost all he gets points for.
R#J follows the beats of its source material: boy meets girl. They are horny teenagers, so they create a lot of drama. There’s family feuding and death, now told via Instagram lives and Twitter feeds. The concept, while initially neat, quickly begins to feel gimmicky and hamstrings the adaptation. Some moments can believably be told over FaceTime, but many other times the characters had no in-universe reason to have their cameras on, but it just so happens that the audience needs this information. Visually, this makes the film interesting; logically, it strains belief.
The performers, too, get hurt by this concept. Romeo and Juliet lives and dies by its lead characters’ chemistry: if the audience isn’t aching for them to just make out already by the time Juliet says, “And palms to palms is holy palmers’ kiss,” something has gone awry. This chemistry comes by much easier on stage or in a traditional filmic adaptation; here, with Camaron Engels’ Romeo and Francesca Noel’s Juliet rarely sharing the same space in the film and largely communicating through (annoying) Instagram flirting, their romance falls flat.
Williams’ bizarre decision to move the aforementioned palm line to Romeo and Juliet’s wedding neuters their initial interaction: instead of functioning as foreplay, the line becomes part of a wedding vow, and instead of rooting for Romeo and Juliet because of their great wordplay and teasing of each other, we are supposed to like them because Romeo sent generic Instagram DMs and for some reason Juliet didn’t immediately block him. Similarly, the iconic balcony scene is reduced to a few lines over FaceTime, and Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, while performed gamely by Siddiq Saunderson, has been gutted. The characters are then formed out of the leftovers, and their personalities are largely conveyed through the icons on their phones: Romeo has Letterboxd and the Criterion Channel, and Juliet has art apps. Thus their personalities get boiled down to sad film bro and sensitive art girl, two of my least favorite kinds of people. (Sorry.)
Let it be known I am not a Shakespeare purist. However, other than novelty, there seems to be no reason to tell R#J in this way, and that just isn’t enough. If Williams simply wanted to update it, he could have shown the characters using phones and communicating through them, but telling the entire story via Apple products grows wearisome. So does the mixing of language and the jarring transition from text slang to “A plague on both your houses.” Drifting from the text always presents problems for Shakespeare adaptations: it worked in My Own Private Idaho, but failed in The King (coincidentally both Henriad adaptations, and no, I am not still mad that David Michôd killed off Hotspur—Hal’s narrative foil—half an hour into his overlong movie, why do you ask?). Generally, it’s easier to stick faithfully to the text or go in the opposite direction and make a 10 Things I Hate About You. Williams had a hard job, and unfortunately didn’t stick the landing.
This becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on and the plot becomes more muddled and difficult to tell over social media, and the pretenses for phone use get thinner and thinner. The novelty wears off quickly, and once it does, we are left with precious little to care about. The ending deviates from old Billy’s, serving as Carey Williams’ own star-defying moment, a way to signal hope for these crazy kids and to avoid showing another dead Black boy on screen. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only social critique that Williams undertakes somewhat seriously, and it still remains shallow. Oh R#J, oh R#J, wherefore art thou so empty?
R#J was part of the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.
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