Saturday, June 14, 2014

Streaming must: Ignore the critics -- Carlo Carlei's ROMEO & JULIET is visually stunning

Yes, this new ROMEO & JULIET is even more beautiful than the famous Franco Zefferelli version because its interiors and exteriors, its sets and costumes are much less "busy," though every bit as gorgeous design-wise, while the amazing architecture -- the buildings and piazzas -- are simply breathtaking. The beauty on display here staggers the eye. If that were all, it would still be enough for me. Fortunately the film offers quite a bit more, beginning with the most beautiful Romeo ever to grace the screen (Pasolini would have been devastated) via the young actor, Douglas Booth (shown at right, above and below, of Christopher and His Kind), who, though British-born, looks utterly Italian. The Juliet of Hailee Steinfeld (shown above and below, left, of True Grit) is no match for Booth beauty-wise, but she's sweet and full of energy.

So the two make a lovely pair of young lovers (Booth was but 20 and Stenfeld 16 when they made this movie). The accent these days for R&J seems to be on speed, foolhardiness and youth. (We're long past the Leslie Howard/Norma Shearer 1936 version, made when those two actors were 43 and 34!)

Youth and its discontents are captured well by Julian Fellowes, shown at right, the screenwriter/adapter of Willie the Shake's original, and the man whom critics appear to have held most to blame here. Bull, say I. Probably because Mr. Fellowes has dared to diddle occasionally with the Bard's words, and even change things around in certain scenes -- was Friar Laurence (a terrific job by Paul Giamatti, below, right) ever in the crypt with a living Juliet immediately prior to her demise? -- certain critics seemed to feel that this prominent and highly successful British writer (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey) deserves the rack.

Yet his changes mostly work well because they add to the suspense and the hope we -- still, even now! -- hold out that what must happen somehow won't.

Fellowes even conspires to give us the chance to see what it would be like had the good Friar's plan have worked and the two lovers be finally united in marriage. The adapter posits that the Friar does what he does partially to help defuse the Capulet/Montague antagonism. For younger audiences, all this will add to the surprise and suspense; for us older folk, we get a little extra joy prior to what comes after.

What most distinguishes the Fellowes' version, it seems to me, is his accent on the pain inflicted by idiotic blood feuds between families/clans. Beyond its love story, Romeo & Juliet is primarily distinguished as Shakespeare's earlier version of something like the Hatfields & McCoys. What surfaces time and again, and more strongly here than I have seen it in earlier R&J's is the enormous waste and sadness inflicted by these "fights unto death."

The cast includes strong performances from its Mercutio (Christian Cooke), Tybalt (Ed Westwick, above, center) and even Paris (Tom Wisdom), while Romeo's dearest friend Benvolio -- a lovely job by  Kodi Smit-McPhee -- has, in the film's perfect close, a silent gesture and moment that beautifully brings home the moral of this tale.

Expected strong work is also garnered from Damian Lewis (above, left) and Natascha McElhone (above, right) as Mom and Dad Capulet. Romeo's parents, the Montagues -- played by Tomas Arana and Laura Morante -- are, as ever, less seen and heard.

And if the characters of R& J this time around seem more a part of the greater ensemble than usual, this is all to the good. There is no way, after all, that we can escape their story, its meaning and sadness, and so a cast of fine supporting actors is a blessing here, bringing the theme of blood feud against peace and prosperity to new heights. (Stellan Skarsgård, shown in photo at bottom, center, makes a fine and regal Prince of Verona, by the way, while Lesley Manville (above, second from right) is funny and concerned as Juliet's nurse.

Add to this the exquisite beauty constantly on display (the eye-popping locations alone should attract a huge influx of tourists to Italy), and you have an R&J for the ages. A word must also be said for the film's director, Carlo Carlei, a fellow whose career I've been watching since his explosive and brilliant early film, Flight of the Innocent, some 22 years ago. (It's still the best movie yet about Italian kidnappings, family feuds, guilt and redemption.) This R & J is his best work since that early film -- in every aspect from performances to pacing to the exquisite "look" -- so it is wonder-fully fulfilling to see Carlei back in form.

This latest version of the world's best known love story, from Relativity, running 118 minutes, and which hit theaters last fall, is available now for streaming via Netflix, and is also viewable on DVD. But why no Blu-ray? Better to see this one in glorious high-definition streaming.

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