Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet Remains Superb
by Kristin Battestella
Before there was YA, there was this 1968 British-Italian adaptation of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. Their family feud and forbidden love at first sight leads to a whirlwind of love and death, and this version from director Franco Zeffirelli remains a superb potboiler of medieval splendor and ill-fated romance.
Zeffirelli (The Taming of the Shrew) wastes no time to start Romeo and Juliet as the chorus fills the audience in on the rival houses, tense times, and new generation of old enemies. Accusations, sword fights, and marketplace quarrels put the action up front while overhead shots and group scenes provide scale. Interior conversations introduce the players – investing the viewer in the paired down old speaketh, rowdy tales of fairy dreams, and Capulet party crashing – and intimate up close shots become asides for the audience, pausing upon the fourth wall but not breaking it. Bawdy jokes, boys' fantasy, and the masked ball titillation invoke an effortless Bard alongside beautiful music, shy glances across the room, and in love, spinning until one is dizzy innocence. Though colorful, there's an of the past, firelight patina, and Romeo and Juliet moves quickly as minstrel's lyrics and villainous threats sow the seeds of this love story made all the better because it is so tragic. The familiar but pretty laments and undeniable prose arrive with the balcony scene forty minutes in, and I wish the publishing industry and category romance wasn't intentionally designed for formulaic happy ever after and instead made room for dark romances like Romeo and Juliet to come back on the bookshelves. The fun medieval festiveness gets out of the way early, and Romeo and Juliet becomes increasingly serious as our eponymous couple risks life for love. Their marriage comes by the intermission, the family fallout dominates the last half hour, and the whole whirlwind upheaval actually only takes a few days. Rival parents turn up their noses at home while hectic street fights and the too many heads in the mob lead to a rumble that irrevocably interferes with this young love – a relationship that can both simultaneously end this family feud peaceably or fuel it to a bitter finale. We root for a wedded escape to Mantua, but epic turns rise in the last act with deception and misunderstandings. Despite knowing of the preventable daggers and poisonous mistakes, Romeo and Juliet grips its audience from start to finish fifty years hence as boys choir vocals and maidens tossing flowers lead to torch-lit crypts of youth lost and #trueloveisdead crescendos.
Both my mother and sister refer to this Romeo and Juliet as “the one with Olivia Hussey,” and indeed her beautiful innocence and natural performance stand out here. I love her hair, too! At fourteen, Juliet isn't ready for her parents to marry her off – she's reluctant to dance and shy, peering over the shoulders of the adults at the concert. Upon seeing Romeo, however, she quickly learns the tease. It's not wrong to touch her hand, but lips are for prayers; this is a sweet sin they've discovered, yet he can't expect satisfaction on the first night! Love has already blossomed, and Juliet is distraught to learn this boy is extra forbidden. Naturally, they plan to marry, and it's easy to be swept up in their happiness and idyllic hopes that love will cure all. Unfortunately, Juliet is immediately torn between her husband and her family – as alas, they aren't one and the same. Maybe if her vain parents had been paying more attention to Juliet and not treated her like an extension of themselves to use in their feud, none of this would have happened! Instead, they prefer Romeo's head on a platter and their obedient daughter hiding in her nurse's skirts, but Hussey's (Black Christmas) Juliet finds her backbone and chooses Romeo at dire costs – leaving her parents to learn their lesson the hard way. Of course, Leonard Whiting's (Frankenstein: The True Story) Romeo begins the play a truly romantic figure in love with being in love. Initially, he is infatuated with Rosaline – a girl he cannot have – and replaces her with the more taboo choice in Juliet. He's a bit flaky, and the popular Romeo gets by on his good looks and bad poetry. Fortunately, Romeo's true love revelation matures him overnight. He grows bold at the dance and pleads his balcony case, now understanding the prize beyond the humor and idea of romance. Our teen lovers are prepubescents becoming adults – childhood as we know it is a relatively recent social concept unknown to them – and Romeo and Juliet discover themselves in each other. It's a powerful awakening, but Romeo remains blinded by their love, thinking the fighting will cease and that he can maintain his loyalty to his friends as Juliet's husband. Rather than the newlyweds leaving Verona when they have the chance, Romeo tries to befriend Tybalt as a relative. Sadly, like Juliet's parents, The Montagues are useless, only bothering to show up when it is time to point fingers, and this young love isn't enough to trump the hate, anger, and vengeance enveloping Romeo and Juliet.
Call me crazy but I have always preferred Michael York (Logan's Run) as Tybalt in this Romeo and Juliet. Whether the Capulet cousin is despicable or not, he sticks to his jerkery and never claims to be anything other than spoiled. From Tybalt's point of view, Romeo and Juliet is a tinderbox ready to make or break either family. We should recognize his to the side ticking time bomb for what it is, and York makes his presence known in each of his scenes. Tybalt refuses Romeo's offer of friendship, escalating the street revenge and relishing the swordplay right to the end. By contrast, John McEnery's (The Land that Time Forgot) Mercutio is a jealous BFF who loses Romeo to Juliet. He must know where Romeo is at all times and insists Romeo partake in his attention seeking games. He's an annoying loudmouth, and as the Bard says, Mercutio may protest too much with his macho fronting. While its easy to claim homosexual innuendo, the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio goes deeper – Mercutio represents the time to put away childish things and the pulling girls' pigtails that Romeo must leave behind. This acclaimed ensemble takes turns as the devils or angels on the shoulders, and in some ways, the Nurse character in Romeo and Juliet can be as important as the leads. I saw a live play once where the Nurse wailed so far beyond comic relief that it became off putting farce! Thankfully, Pat Heywood's (Girly) Nurse is a fine companion to Juliet who alleviates the rigid parental demure with a touch of bawdy. She's happy to share secrets on love's behalf and be the couple's go between, and The Nurse is eager to make the rendezvousing couple marriage official alongside Milo O'Shea (Barbarella) as Friar Lawrence. These characters become the male and female allies for each half of the couple, supporting them where their parents do not with healthy hearth and church sanctity that inadvertently undoes just as much as it helps. The Friar dislikes Romeo dropping the safer choice in Rosaline, but he also hopes a proper union will mend the family fences – anchoring Romeo and Juliet with a godly undercurrent. Juliet wears a prominent cross (want it!), the lovers cross themselves or pray for each other, and secret meetings are held in the church or disguised as going to confession. Who are these Montagues and Capulets that would put asunder a love and faith that God has blessed with sanctuary and hope? Even after unfortunate crimes are committed, we still believe these kids didn't do anything wrong – save trying to overcome earthly grudges at a terrible price. Although he is only heard at the beginning and in the fatal finale, Laurence Olivier's behind the scenes assistance on Romeo and Juliet also offers a Shakespearean seal of approval for the ill-fated lovers here.
If ever there was proof that more movies should be filmed on authentic locations it is this Romeo and Juliet. The Italian scenery is totally superb – cobblestone courtyards, colorful marketplaces, and medieval churches immediately establish the Verona time and place. Tolling bells, velvet doublets, giant hats, and sword fights feel bona fide out of the past, and the ornate ribbons and beaded attention to detail sparkles on the divine women's robes. My mother's wedding gown was this so-called Juliet style, and I want this empire silhouette to come back. Though applauded for its age appropriate casting, the striped tights and in your face codpieces certainly add fuel to the bemusing juvenile fire. I liked Romeo and Juliet a lot, until I got to school and had to sit at my desk while we read the play aloud with horny little boys laughing at the “draw thy sword” puns. This began my early love/hate relationship with Shakespeare – I enjoyed the plays and numerous adaptations but hated how we were taught to treat dramas as mere textbooks. Fortunately, I never tired of Romeo and Juliet's soundtrack. The LP with its risque nude cover and matching booklet full of pictures from the film was one of my favorite records as a kid, and the score remains Greensleeves melancholy to match the visual cat and mouse and “What is a Youth” lyrics. Though innocent enough now, it all seemed so scandalous then. Who really opens the bed curtains hanging out in full view and stands naked in front of the window? The brief nudity can be skipped for the classroom, however, it's important for this couple to have a moment of unashamed bliss – the ironic orgasm and little death of the marital bed to be followed so soon by dying over a kiss and dagger sheaths. Romeo and Juliet trades hopeful dances for dark altars, veils, night weddings and day funerals that become one and the same.
Though this award winning version pairs down much, it can still be overlong at two hours plus with subtitles from the bare bones DVD necessary. There doesn't seem to be a tricked out Region 1 blu-ray edition either, yet this Romeo and Juliet remains a great place for Neo-Elizabethan or fanciful youths to meet Shakespeare. Were these titular kids just being stupid? Give it another few days and they would have gotten over themselves! Were meddling family, miscommunicating assistance, happenstance, or love really to blame? Despite its youth centric melancholy, Romeo and Juliet remains open for discussion with a bittersweet fate and timeless edge made better by the superb sixties meets medieval loss of innocence here.