Movie review: Poor casting derails the otherwise lovely ‘R&J’

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICEOctober 11, 2013 

Film Review Romeo and Juliet

Nurse (Lesley Manville) looks on while her charge Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) and Romeo (Douglas Booth) kiss.

PHILIPPE ANTONELLO — AP

  • ROMEO & JULIET

    ••

    Rated: PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements. Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti. Director: Carlo Carlei. Running time: 118 minutes. Theaters: Flicks and Edwards 22 in Boise.

It’s heartening to see how gorgeous the Italian cities of Verona and Mantua still are in the new “Romeo & Juliet,” so well-preserved that the Bard himself would recognize them — if he actually traveled through Europe.

Those stunning Renaissance locations almost make up for the rather disastrous casting at the heart of this film. How 17-year-old Hailee Steinfeld managed to look younger and more innocent than she did in “True Grit,” which filmed four years ago, is anybody’s guess.

Almost as big a mystery is why they cast this overmatched actress as the teen who inspires the immortal line: “I never knew true beauty until this night.” Romeo (Douglas Booth) doesn’t get out much.

The callow boy has tossed aside his infatuation for one forbidden Capulet girl for another, and as cruel as it is to say so, Steinfeld doesn’t justify it. She rushes her lines, kisses like a rank amateur (which kind of fits — she’s supposed to be quite young) and tries not to shiver in all the unheated rooms where we see her breath as she wonders “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

Booth is the real beauty here, a model-pretty boy who doesn’t have a lot of camera charisma. They make for a bland, lines-mumbling couple in an otherwise lovely and lively take on the classic play.

Paul Giamatti steals the picture as Friar Lawrence, trying not to stand in the way of love, aware of how funny he is as he tries to fight the hormones that draw the Montague boy to the Capulet girl. “I pray you were not playing in Satan’s game,” he purrs.

Damian Lewis manages some fury and fun as Juliet’s father, and Natascha McElhone is his too-sexy wife, too understanding of Juliet’s reluctance to enter into an arranged marriage at such an early age.

Ed Westwick and Christian Cooke are matched hotheads Tybalt and Mercutio, practically foaming at the mouth to take the Capulet-Montague feud that keeps our young couple apart, to a new, bloodier level.

Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) did the adaptation, with Italian director Carlo Carlei, who is utterly in over his head. It’s not that the movie isn’t great looking, but getting his baby-faced actors to be compelling was beyond him.

As much as every generation deserves its own “Romeo & Juliet,” this latest one does nothing to make anyone forget the heat of Baz Lurhmann’s far sexier, noisier and passionate modern-dress 1996 version when Claire Danes and Leo DiCaprio convinced us that they knew how to “play Satan’s game.”

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