Entertainment & Arts

Romeo and Juliet: Julian Fellowes reinvents a classic tale

Image caption Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth play the star-crossed lovers

Academy award-winning screenwriter and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes is renowned for his period dramas.

For his latest project, he has adapted one of Shakespeare's most celebrated love stories, Romeo and Juliet.

Fellowes' version is the latest in a string of adaptations of the famous tale and follows Baz Luhrmann's successful 1996 update, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes.

Where Lurhmann's film captivated teenage audiences with its contemporary style, Fellowes' update, directed by Carlo Carlei, seeks to take a "different approach" more akin to Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 classic, narrated by Laurence Olivier.

"That was the last one in medieval costume and filmed against the walls of the castles of Italy," says Fellowes, whose update is set in the northern city of Verona.

"That did seem a long time not to have revisited it in film in the traditional storytelling, romantic context."

Compelling plot

But Fellowes has been criticised by Shakespeare experts for rewriting certain passages and altering the language used in the Bard's work.

He rejects the criticism, saying the film was never intended to be a straight adaptation of the original.

Image caption Fellowes says Hailee Steinfeld's youth is a "bonus"

"When people say we should have filmed the original, I don't attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on.

"I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare's language choices."

Film producer Ileen Maisel chose Fellowes, who won the best screenplay Oscar for Gosford Park in 2002, to write the script as she wanted someone who could "update Shakespeare's language and story while staying true to its poetic cadence and compelling plot lines".


Fellowes adds: "We wanted [a wider group] to enjoy a version of Romeo and Juliet much more than they would expect to.

"That was our goal, to allow them to enjoy the great beauty of the speeches, but at the same time to tell the story in a way they could follow and wouldn't feel alienated or left out," he says.

The cast features the young Oscar-nominated American actress Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet alongside Douglas Booth - the British model and actor who gained acclaim for his portrayal of Boy George in the 2010 BBC Two drama, Worried About the Boy.

Homeland star Damian Lewis and Oscar-nominated US actor Paul Giamatti add further international appeal as Lord Capulet and Friar Lawrence.

Image caption Fellowes won a best screenplay Oscar for Gosford Park

Booth says the film's Italian setting and sumptuous costumes helped its authenticity, also aided by the fact the acting protagonists are close in age to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Fellowes adds Steinfeld's youth "is a tremendous bonus in the film". She was 15 at the time of filming, two years older than the original Juliet.

"We intended from the start to get an actress who was as young and who could reasonably play her," he explains.

"There is something about real youth as opposed to Max Factor youth that is very moving.

"With first love - when it blots out everything else - when the protagonists are very young, you can believe that disproportionate reality of love that seems to transcend everything else in your life. I feel that's what Hailee gave to us."

Booth says the element of youthfulness was one of the reasons he wanted to be involved in the film.

"The chance to play Romeo doesn't come along every day and the chance to bring this to a new generation was tempting.

Romeo's back story

"It's terrifying at first as it comes with a whole load of baggage, but it was a challenge and that's why I wanted to take it on.

"I wanted to take that baggage and throw it out the window and start fresh with the character.

Image caption Booth previously worked with Fellowes in From Time To Time alongside Dame Maggie Smith

"By us being younger, I thought it would bring a different take on the film, an innocence that had not been done before."

Before Romeo and Juliet, Booth appeared in Fellowes' From Time To Time alongside Dame Maggie Smith and Timothy Spall, before landing the role of Boy George in the BBC's drama.

"Playing Romeo was completely different to Boy George, but at the same time you have to find the human core of who these people are," he adds.

Booth credits Lewis and Giamatti with being "inspirational" on set, particularly Giamatti for helping to create a realistic, tender relationship between Romeo and the friar.

Fellowes says he wanted Friar Lawrence to embody a surrogate, paternal role, particularly as Lord Montagu doesn't have much of a look in.

"There is a kind of gap in Romeo's back story of an adult who loves him and I think Lawrence fits that very naturally."

Where the relationship between Juliet and her nurse, played by Lesley Manville, is pretty faithful to the original - caring and comedic in equal measure - Fellows saw the friar as a "slightly odd character" whose motives for intervening in the young lovers' lives are "difficult to understand".

"I did feel that if we could find in the character a genuine affection for Romeo and a desire for his happiness - and beyond that a desire for his marriage to make the community happier and to end the dispute that is ruining everyone's lives - then his involvement would become more logical and easier to understand."

Romeo and Juliet is released in UK cinemas on Friday 11 October.

More on this story