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 Immortal Bard himself would recognize them – if he actually traveled through Europe.
Those stunning locations – Renaissance ballrooms and porticoes, squares, bridges, gardens and parlors – almost make up for the rather disastrous casting at the heart of this production. How 17-year-old Hailee Steinfeld managed to look younger and more romantically 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 this immortal line: “I never knew true beauty until this night.” Romeo (Douglas Booth) doesn’t get out much. Apparently.
The callow boy has tossed aside his infatuation for one forbidden girl from the Capulet clan for another, and as cruel as it is 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 toy boy who doesn’t have a lot of camera charisma, either. The two of them make for a bland, lines-mumbling couple in an otherwise lovely and lively take on the classic play.
Paul Giamatti steals the picture as the helpful Friar Lawrence, trying not to stand in the way of love, aware of how funny he is when 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. Not until they’re married, anyway.
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, the thing that keeps our young couple apart, to a new, bloodier level.
Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) did this adaptation, with Italian director Carlo Carlei, best known for the dead-guy-comes-back-as-a-dog dramedy “Fluke,” utterly in over his head. It’s not that the movie isn’t great looking, with stunning sets, sword fights and a nice serving of horseplay. But getting his baby-faced actors comfortable or compelling was beyond him.
So as much as every generation deserves its own “Romeo & Juliet,” this latest one does nothing to make anyone older than Hailee Steinfeld forget the heat of Baz Lurhmann’s far sexier, noisier and passionate modern-dress version of 1996, when Claire Danes and Leo DiCaprio completely convinced us that they knew how to “play Satan’s game.” And how.