Synopsis: Italian director Franco Zeffirelli stunned the screen world when he cast two young unknowns to portray the star-crossed lovers in Romeo & Juliet, but it was a gamble that resulted in one of the most popular motion pictures of all time, winning international acclaim and four Academy Award nominations. Shakespeare’s classic romance comes to stunning visual life in a refreshingly modern interpretation, bringing new vitality and insight to the most enduring love story ever written.
eyelights: the cast. the production. the direction. the score.
eyesores: its abridgement of the third act.
“A glooming peace this morning with it brings. The sun for sorrow will not show his head. For never was a story of more woe Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Thank goodness for public education. If not for high school, I never would have read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (or any Shakespeare for that matter!). If not for that, I also wouldn’t have seen Franco Zeffirelli’s brilliant 1968 motion picture adaptation.
If I hadn’t seen it, I might instead have ended up watching Baz Luhrmann’s WTF adaptation, starring Leo and Claire (I tried, but could only watch ten minutes of it!) and thought it was the coolest thing since ‘A Very Brady Sequel’.
Thankfully, I was exposed to what must be the definitive stage-to-screen adaptation of The Bard’s classic tale of two “star-cross’d lovers”: upon its release, it was by far the biggest box office grosser based on a Shakespeare play.
It was also nominated for a large number of awards, including four Academy Awards (of which it won two) – and remains to this day the last Shakespearian motion picture to have netted a nomination for a Best Picture (yes, even I was surprised by this!).
Well, we all know the tale all too well; it has been recounted numerous times in numerous forms (in fact, even when Shakespeare wrote the play it was already recycled material, having been lifted from Arthur Brooke and William Painter…).
(…who themselves had lifted it from an Italian tale.)
(Clearly, intellectual property rights weren’t in full bloom as they are now…)
In any event, what makes this production so special is just how realistic it looks and feels, all the while staying true to much of the source material; Zeffirelli filmed on location in Italy, which broadened the scope of many scenes.
In fact, after watching this picture, I can hardly imagine this story being limited to the stage; this production breathes life into it, what with the dusty courtyards, the classic structures, …etc. You can’t make that up. No studio could recreate this correctly.
The whole production is impressive: the Capulet ball, although understated by modern overindulgences, looks exactly as I would imagine it to look and feel in the 16th century, from the costumes to the choreography. You feel transported there.
The music also sounds contextually appropriate. Its gorgeous arrangements envelop the picture and “What is a Youth”, although a bit discrepant, highlights Romeo and Juliet’s first encounter. This theme is reused to great effect throughout the picture.
Even the sword fights look real, believable, not overly-choreographed and/or acrobatic. The duel between Mercutio and Tybald is fun: they’re playful, doing it mostly for laughs, and both Mercutio and Romeo are shown out of their depth at swordsplay.
It’s completely convincing – which is not something we can say of modern swordfights.
Most of the performances are entirely credible, aside for the men’s raucous laughter when they’re supposed to be having fun – this looks artificial. But, otherwise, the whole cast, most of whom I’ve seen nowhere else, are absolutely terrific.
But I really have to fawn over Olivia Hussey for a moment: She was plucked out of near obscurity for the part and barely got it – another actress landed it first, but then lost it after cutting her hair. Hussey was ushered in at the last minute.
I can’t even imagine the picture without her. I was smitten with her when I saw it, at the age of 16, and I feel like a teenager again every time I see this movie. She looks somewhat like a younger Jane Seymour, another actress I go gaga for.
And of course, back in the ’80s, my jaw-dropped at the frank nudity in the picture. Juliet wasn’t just beautiful, like an angel, but we got to see her naked. And, for those more into Romeo, he was shown equally naked – it’s not a sexist picture.
In any event, Hussey is so good here: her range is so vast, from girlish charm to raging grief to desperation. She is not just a pretty face. Too bad her career never took off more than that (although she is in two of my guilty pleasures…)
Oh, wherefore art thou, Olivia! How I wish she were in more pictures…
Leonard Whiting is also excellent as Romeo. He, too, was unknown before this picture and he utterly embodies the naiveté and brashness of youth. He is the perfect counterpart for Hussey. Sadly, but ironically enough, his career fizzled out afterwards.
And this despite both of them winning Golden Globes for their respective performances!
They are incredible together. The way that Romeo and Juliet meet, so innocent, so curious about each other; the first love of youth couldn’t be more pristine than this. In their hands, it’s hard not to feel those emotions again, nearly renewed.
Another excellent performance comes from John McEnery, as Mercutio. He is intense, utterly committed to the part, and fully believable given the character’s funny, fiery and dramatic personality (he started his career doing a lot of Shakespeare, so no wonder!).
It’s been a long time since I’ve read the play, so the picture’s omissions don’t bother me now. To me now, it’s almost flawlessless. But I still remember how outraged I was when Juliet’s bedside soliloquy was pretty much excised; only a few lines survived.
And from that point onward, Zeffirelli took a few more liberties, such as Romeo buying poison (here, he mysteriously happens to have it on him!) and Romeo doesn’t encounter Paris on his way to Juliet’s tomb – Paris is completely removed from the finale.
Still, despite this, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is near-perfect. I docked some points for the abridged soliloquy and the missing bits at the end, but it’s otherwise so brilliant that I can hardly imagine another production outdoing it. In my estimation, this is the one to see.
Date of viewing: February 2, 2016