WILL AND ME: Romeo and Juliet (1968) Review
ROMEO AND JULIET (1968) REVIEW:
CAST: Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, John McEnery, Milo O'Shea, Pat Heywood, Robert Stephens, Michael York, Bruce Robinson, Paul Hardwick, Natasha Parry, Antonio Pierfederici, Esmeralda Ruspoli, Paola Tedesco
Director— Franco Zeffirelli
Producers— John Brabourne and Anthony Havelock-Allan
Writers—Franco Brusati, Masolino D'Amico and Franco Zeffirelli; based on the play by William Shakespeare
Now that I have recently reviewed the 2013 adaptation of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, it is time for me to wind back the clocks and review a version of the play that comes from the past: Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, often considered the grandfather of all Romeo and Juliet adaptations and interpretations in existence. A Shakespeare film that has long since gained a passionate legion of fans and has been basically become one of the greatest adaptations of the bard’s writings ever made, sharing the noble spot with Olivier’s Hamlet, Peter Greenaway’s adaptation of The Tempest, and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.
We are all very familiar with the story: The Montagues (played by Antonio Pierfederici and Esmeralda Ruspoli) and the Capulets (played by Paul Hardwick and Natasha Parry) are at war with each other; their youngest children fall in love and secretly get married; and eventually, their star-crossed love leads to their suicides….and all against the beautiful—now tragic—backdrop of fair Verona.
With the trivial stuff aside, this is what I think of Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet:
I must warn the reader that is will be a fairly short review for what I have to say about the flick can summed up in one short sentence: IT WAS THE GREATEST ROMANTIC FILM I EVER SAW IN MY LIFE! (And for the record, yes that was meant to be a reference to Bum Reviews. If you have no idea who that is, look him up on Blip TV!)
There are so many things that work with this feature: Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey maker a BRILLIANT Romeo and Juliet, presenting their characters with realistic youth, believable passion for one another in their actions and speeches, and a well-researched understanding of their characters and their tragic innocence at that age; Pat Heywood as Juliet’s nurse is a joy to watch and leaves you falling in love with her sassiness and her positive outlook on any situation; Mercutio’s speech about Queen Mab actually makes a lot of sense in this version compared with other adaptations; the balcony scene is exactly how you want it to be; the production design for the Capulet tomb is both creepy and climatic, very worthy of Shakespeare indeed; the choice of locations are really, really, really beautiful to look at; and the biggest high point of the film has got to be Michael York in the role of Tybalt: In just every Romeo and Juliet I have seen, Tybalt is portrayed as an unlikeable and soulless villain. But here, York portrays Tybalt as a sympathetic character who clearly only wants to keep his distance from the Montagues, not harm them in anyway. He frequently threatens people like Mercutio or Benvolio, but he never does it out of blood lust; he does because he doesn’t want things to turn violent and he doesn’t want to be the cause of pain if the brawls lead to death. Even during the sword fight with Mercutio, you can clearly see that Tybalt only wants Mercutio to do the logical thing and walk away and stay as far away from him as possible. (Throughout the fight, Tybalt spends most of it deliberately avoiding the flesh, making sure that Mercutio is left without a scar.) And when he does end up killing Mercutio, you can see on his face that he never wanted things to turn out like this. His face is swept with unbelievable grief and regret. And that, in my mind, deserves to go down in history as the best Tybalt ever portrayed on screen. (Michael York, stand up and take a bow!)
But of the course, the film isn’t without its flaws….but thankfully, they are so few:
John McEnery’s Mercutio is annoying, unkind and unsympathetic (to the point where you don’t feel sorry for him when he dies); the love ballad What is a Youth? by Nino Rota and Eugene Walter (and performed in the film by Glen Weston), though beautifully written, doesn’t fit with the rest of the film’s dialogue (i.e.—the song’s lyrics are in modern day English, whilst the rest of the dialogue is, of course, Elizabethan English!); the hecklers who watch the brawl between Mercutio and Tybalt speaking in non-Elizabethan sentences is distracting and a real mood killer; the death of Juliet lacks emotion; and the notorious on-screen appearance of the usually unseen Rosaline at the Capulet ball (where is she played by Paola Tedesco) is pointless, dull and downright confusing since that Romeo never actually mentioned her by name at all prior to her appearance. He mentions that he is heartbroken to Benvolio (Bruce Robinson), but never mentions the name of the person breaking his heart. The only time that Rosaline is mentioned by name is when he visits Friar Lawrence (Milo O'Shea), in which Romeo tells him that he’s over Rosaline and now in love with Juliet. So unless you did some research into the film prior to watching it, Rosaline’s appearance is random and adds nothing to the story, other than being an obvious attempt of the director to make himself look like his the most daring filmmaker is history: “Look at me, I’m a rebel! I have made Rosaline as an on screen character, implying that Romeo and Juliet’s love is just a fling this whole time! And next, I’m going to protest to George Lucas, saying that he should release Stars Wars where Jabba the Hutt makes an appearance to threaten Hans Solo! Ain’t I just an Oscar worthy badass?”
(If showing Rosaline on screen was indeed Zeffirelli's way to be “daring”, he was clearly wasting his time, especially when he already did the daring thing of showing the two lovers naked during the romantic bedroom scene where Romeo shows up the night before he is to leave Verona as a punishment for killing Tybalt. The fact that we see an “entirely other side to the couple” (so to speak) would have been controversial during the 60s. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been any recorded protests from religious groups complaining about the nude scenes. So compared with Rosaline’s screen time to sudden teenage nudity, I think the latter was already writing this film’s importance in cinematic history anyway.)
You ain’t a true Shakespeare fan until you see this film. Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet—I highly recommend it.