It is surely a bad sign for any "Romeo and Juliet" when its most pulse-quickening moments come from Paul Giamatti.
This latest adaption of the Shakespeare tragedy of young love comes suited to times flush with teen romance, a reminder that before there were vampires and werewolves, there were Montagues and Capulets. Though Italian director Carlo Carlei keeps the film focused on the emotions, Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit") and the young British actor Douglas Booth don't create any real passion in this earnest but bland production.
So it comes as little surprise that Giamatti, as Friar Laurence, simply steals every scene he's in. With exclamations like "Holy St. Francis!" he enlivens the movie such that you wish it would do away with those star-crossed lovers (what were their names?) and focus on the mischievous monk.
The screenplay has been adapted by Julian Fellowes, he of "Downton Abby" fame. Fellowes has kept the Shakespeare's lyrical prose, but he does a lot of trimming and simplifying to hue close to the melodrama. As opposed to Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, Fellowes aims generally at presenting a traditional, Verona-set "Romeo and Juliet," more akin to Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version.
It's an admirable purpose that pays off in one respect: the fine, stark settings of Renaissance-era Italy. Carlie shot in Verona and other Italian cities, and the effect is often painterly. (The period costumes by Carlo Poggioli are also sumptuous.)
But the approach also robs the adaptation of any urgency or reason for being. By staying fairly faithful to Shakespeare, only so much damage can be done (Joss Whedon's "Much ado About Nothing" earlier this year got by with far less production value and just a touch of wit), but there is little intensity here.
The abridgement, too, is so much that Juliet feels like a supporting player to Romeo. Booth's handsome features and full lips get plenty of appreciation, but one can't help but wish for someone (like a young DiCaprio) with a little danger — a Romeo who doesn't look like he's about to stride down a catwalk.
But that's symptomatic of the film altogether: pretty on the outside but lacking something more than a menagerie of lush brunette heads. Carlei has a smooth touch, but it can grow suffocating, particularly with the omnipresent strings of Abel Korzeniowski's score.
Many of the adults in supporting roles (Damian Lewis, Natascha McEhlone) give strong if brief performances. The most obvious misstep is the one-note rage of Ed Westwick as Tybalt.
"Romeo and Juliet," a Relativity release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some violence and thematic elements." Running time: 118 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.