Five stars for Spielberg’s ‘moving’ West Side Story

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Tony finds Maria and climbs the fire escape to her window overlooking a courtyard where laundry is strung between buildings. If we don’t believe in their improbable love at first sight, of course, nothing else in West Side Story can work. But Zegler and Elgort are completely convincing. Zegler’s face is both innocent and full of passion, and her voice strong and lovely as they sing Tonight. Spielberg stages this balcony scene dramatically as they race up and down the fire escape, yet intimate through his use of closeups, capturing the simmering sexual tension of their encounter. The sequence of Maria and Tonight creates the film’s most exquisite episode. But we know that a rumble between the Jets and Sharks looms, and that it can’t end well. 

Before that rumble, the film fits in an effervescent version of the comic number Gee, Officer Krupke, with the Jets bouncing around a police station while Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) is out of sight. Nothing of the score is wasted, as Bernstein’s melodies drift in and out the soundtrack with graceful ease. In other highlights, DeBose brings a volatile glee to America, a sequence staged as an elaborate dance down the stairs of her tenement out on to the streets. Zegler gets her own vibrant centrepiece in I Feel Pretty. But the most eloquent and moving moment belongs to Moreno. (This shouldn’t be a spoiler, but if you are especially sensitive about revelations, skip to the next paragraph.) The song Somewhere, usually sung by the lovers as an expression of hope, is now sung by Valentina, alone in her store after learning that the rumble has led to two deaths, one caused by Tony. Moreno makes the lyric “There’s a place for us” a quiet, mournful expression of grief for all the lost hopes that surround her. She and DeBose, who is as good at expressing sadness as she is at fiery energy, dominate the potent last part of the film.

Spielberg is wise enough to know that the original West Side Story was once-in-a-lifetime. He has created his own miracle, a diversely cast, socially-aware film for today that embraces all that is sublime in its incomparable source. It makes perfect sense that the film’s premiere took place at Lincoln Center, completing a timeless circle, on and off screen.

★★★★★

West Side Story is released on 10 December

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