By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Didn’t we just have a big-screen version of “Romeo and Juliet,” you ask?
Actually, it’s been 17 years since Baz Luhrmann’s imaginative take on the Shakespeare play, in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes played out the tragical tale.
And even if you wonder why the world needs another version of “R&J,” such doubts are dispelled within the first five minutes of this movie. Oh, yeah, that’s right: This is a cracking good story with rich characters and gorgeous language. I prithee, bring it on.
There’s nothing conceptual or fancy about this version. We’re in the Verona that Shakespeare imagined, caught between the feuding houses of Capulet and Montague. Digital effects stand in for expensive scenery, and the title roles are played by actors young enough to be credible as lovestruck teenagers.
Hailee Steinfeld, the plucky leading lady from “True Grit,” is Juliet, the Capulet lass whose parents (Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone) want her to marry someone boring.
English actor Douglas Booth plays Romeo, kin of the Montague clan, who takes one look at Juliet and instantly forgets about his other major crush.
These two performers are either not quite up to the Shakespearian challenge or ill-served by their director, Carlo Carlei. Steinfeld is believably starry-eyed, although her attention sometimes seems to wander.
And it isn’t Douglas Booth’s fault that he looks like the result of a Hollywood agent’s talent search that began with the words, “Get me the next Robert Pattinson!” His voice is all right, but Carlei photographs him as though laying out a 12-page spread for Vogue.
Luckily, there are other players in the scenario, some of whom have juicy turns. Christian Cooke doesn’t quite nail the foolproof role of silver-tongued Mercutio, but Lesley Manville (a standout in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year”) is touching as Juliet’s Nurse, and Kodi Smit-McPhee (from “Let Me In”) is offbeat as Benvolio.
Saving a few over-dressed scenes is Paul Giamatti, who plays Friar Laurence, dispenser of wisdom and ill-advised potions. Giamatti is so forceful he tends to overpower his younger co-stars, but his skill and expertise are a welcome presence here.
The text has been heavily edited by screenwriter Julian Fellowes, taking a break from grinding out his “Downton Abbey” sausages. The film moves along at breakneck speed, and proves that even a middling version of a Shakespeare classic can still get it done.
“Romeo and Juliet” (two and a half stars)
The tragical tale of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers gets a middling treatment here, with Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth not quite up to the challenge. Some good supporting work (especially Paul Giamatti and Lesley Manville) and a swift-moving pace help confirm that this durable story still gets it done.
Rated: PG-13 for violence.
Showing: Alderwood 7, Oak Tree, Pacific Place.