Before I go into the review I want to say that for me, a great Shakespeare movie is not required to be word for word perfect. Throne of Blood, a masterful retelling of Macbeth by Akira Kurosawa, is one of my all time favorite movies Shakespearean or not, and it’s not even in English.
As far as Romeo and Juliet go, I’d just seen the Maryland Shakespeare Festival do a really nice job with this play which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I had fairly high expectations going into Franco Zeffirelli’s version based on its reputation and reviews I’d seen on IMDB.com.
First I want to say, the costumes and Italian setting were some of the best I’d ever seen, and the score was stunning. And though I may sound harsh below, this movie has stayed with me since seeing it, and may demand a second viewing.
Now as far as the movie itself? I hate to say it, but other then Olivia Hussey as Juliet and Pat Heywood as the Nurse, (And sometimes Milo O’Shea as the Friar), I thought the acting was stiff and completely unbelievable. Every time Romeo entered the screen I could almost hear Franco Zeffirelli telling him “Okay’ bring your eyebrows together and look pensive. Now do it again. More with the eyebrows’ more pensive. Again. Again. CUT!”
And then there’s Mercutio, who’s suppose to be the dirty joke telling 16(?) year old, slightly older friend that goads Romeo to get in trouble, but will always be there when needed. But no, Zeffirelli’s Mercutio was just plain annoying and spastic with no personality. Also they edited out his best (dirty) lines in essence nurturing him. And jumping back to Romeo with his Waxy pensive looks, you know how they wore those hose stockings in the Middle Ages? Well’ Every time the orchestrated musical score would start to soar (Beautifully mind you), and Romeo would give his pensive dreamy look wearing what looked like ballet tights, I swear I thought they were going to break out into a ballet with Romeo pirouetting across the screen.
When you read the play, you will find Romeo is a flighty, hormone driven 14 year old boy. How do we know this? Well right from the start of the play we learn that Juliet was NOT the love of his life, it was Rosaline. Yes’ Rosaline, who we learn from Romeo’s lips is “The all-seeing sun, ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.” So in reality Romeo is fickle. Romeo has the wandering eye. Romeo is acting like a 14 year old, and looking to fall in love… Again. Yet Zeffrelli adds Rosaline to the story with a couple throw away lines pronounced by the Friar in the middle of the movie. Now what about Mercutio’s role in Romeos romances in the play as compared to the movie? He’s the big brother there to both tease and teach. He’s the cool guy with the heart of gold.
“I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot,
straight leg and quivering thigh
And the demesnes (regions) that there adjacent lie”. – Mercutio
Then there’s Olivia Hussy’s Juliet. She made the movie, even if there were times she laid it on a bit thick. Still’ She came across in every scene as beautiful, innocent, and honest. The first time she sees Romeo at the dance Olivia Hussy’s eyes glowed with honest emotion, you could believe she was truly experiencing love at first site. Still, Zeffirelli managed to cut some of Juliet’s best lines. When she’s about to drink the drought that the Friar has given her to put her into a death like sleep, what does she say in Zeffirelli’s version? “Love give me strength…Gulp”. Very short and to the point. Shakespeare gave her some amazing lines here, and instead Zeffirelli give’s us the Reader’s Digest version (Gulp).
Here’s what Juliet is really thinking when she sips the potion:
What if it be a poison, which the friar
Subtly hath minister’d to have me dead,
Lest in this marriage he should be dishonour’d,
Because he married me before to Romeo?
I fear it is: and yet, methinks, it should not,
For he hath still been tried a holy man.
How if, when I am laid into the tomb,
I wake before the time that Romeo
Come to redeem me? there’s a fearful point!
Shall I not, then, be stifled in the vault,
To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,
And there die strangled ere my Romeo comes?
Or, if I live, is it not very like,
The horrible conceit of death and night,
Together with the terror of the place,–
As in a vault, an ancient receptacle,
Where, for these many hundred years, the bones
Of all my buried ancestors are packed:
Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth,
Lies festering in his shroud; where, as they say,
At some hours in the night spirits resort;–
Alack, alack, is it not like that I,
So early waking, what with loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad:–
O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,
Environed with all these hideous fears?
And madly play with my forefather’s joints?
And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud?
And, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone,
As with a club, dash out my desperate brains?
O, look! methinks I see my cousin’s ghost
Seeking out Romeo, that did spit his body
Upon a rapier’s point: stay, Tybalt, stay!
Romeo, I come! this do I drink to thee.