We take a look at this beloved classic as it reopens in cinemas this month…
So, in fair Verona, there’s these two households, right, and they’re both alike in dignity, but civil blood is making civil hands unclean (this means that they’re feuding like Bloods and Crips); from forth their fatal loins, however, a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their lives (this means the lovers come from opposite families), and with their death, bury their parent’s strife. Don’t worry about me spoiling the ending there, by the way, because Shakespeare does it in the first fourteen lines of the play, and if it’s good enough for Shakespeare then it’s good enough for me.
Shakespeare having died 400 years ago exactly about one month ago, there’s a lot of him going around at the moment – London’s Globe and Stratford-upon-Avon’s RSC popularity level is greater than ever, and that level has always been “wildly popular”; you can do Shakespeare walking tours, buy Shakespeare stamps, see performers reciting Shakespeare in the streets, go to lectures and discussions on Shakespeare, even buy hot new reissues of dubiously-Shakespearean films like Kurosawa’s Ran¹. And, courtesy of the BFI, you can attend newly-restored rereleases of Shakespeare film adaptations; the programme is, of course, dominated by Kenneth Branagh, but there are also opportunities to watch rare silent films like Amleto, classic adaptations like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, oddities like Derek Jarman’s The Tempest and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, children’s animations The Lion King and Gnomeo and Juliet, and this film, Franco Zeffirelli’s heavily-praised 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet.
It’s well worth a look, especially in its newly-restored version. Less interested in the gang-violence theme than most adaptations seem to be (West Side Story and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet are the two other most-seen versions of the story, though ancient grudge really broke to new mutiny in the Jet Li vehicle Romeo Must Die), this Italian-British coproduction instead finds the heart of its story in the young love and sexual awakening of its primary figures, Juliet in particular. Shakespeare’s text tells us that Juliet is thirteen, but for the sake of modern sensibilities, this is usually ignored and she is made to look somewhere from fifteen to seventeen. Her actress here, Olivia Hussey, was seventeen at the time of filming, but her delicate features give the impression that she is even younger, though her ample bosom had to be taped down to keep up the not-entirely-successful illusion, and a second-long glimpse of her bare breasts made the film fondly remembered for a whole generation of males for whom it was the first breast they ever saw, and in a classroom at that. It works for Zeffirelli’s vision, and it is in the playfully erotic that he succeeds best, with perhaps the most memorable scene seeing Romeo take Juliet’s hand in secret at a dance.
Leonard Whiting, as Romeo, isn’t quite the equal of Hussey’s Juliet, but then the source material is more interested in Juliet anyway. Nonetheless the two have a satisfying chemistry, and reunited last year for Social Suicide. The underrated John McEnery makes his explosive film début as Mercutio, and the dependable Michael York is an unconventionally sympathetic Tybalt. The other important rôle is The Nurse, handled here by a minor actress, Pat Heywood, who picked up a BAFTA nomination for her trouble. Sir Laurence Olivier speaks the Prologue and Epilogue, a little portentously at that.
There is a slight touch of the portentous to the picture, most noticeable in its cod-Gothic opening and closing titles, and its too-heavy score by Nino Rota, who would go on to demonstrate the deftness of which he is capable on The Godfather. But Zeffirelli, a designer for operas when he wasn’t directing films, does his best work staging complex scenes, like the seduction at the dance or the final confrontation between Capulets and Montagues, with much movement, extraordinary settings, and exciting choreography. Failing to pick up Oscars for Best Director or Best Picture, it’s hard to argue that this film didn’t deserve those it did go home with, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. A nomination for Best Art Direction wouldn’t have gone amiss either, for this lavish, grand-scale version of one of Shakespeare’s most intimate plays.
Romeo and Juliet is playing again in cinemas from today (20th), will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!