Directed By: Frank Zeffirelli
Written By: Franco Brusati, Masolino D’Amico and Franco Zeffirelli (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Starring: Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Michael York, John McEnery
To create perhaps the most fondly remembered Shakespeare adaptation is obviously no lean achievement. Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was warmly welcomed in 1968, it was the highest grossing of all Shakespeare renditions at the time and has been revered ever since, hailed as the definitive re-telling of Shakespeare’s play. Rendition maybe isn’t the right word. What makes Zeffirelli’s film so successful is that it isn’t a mere re-reading of the tale. It isn’t a mere tribute to the source. It closely honours the original, clutching it suffocatingly close to its chest and fixes itself tight to it, but it doesn’t leach off Shakespeare. This is a genuinely romantic film in its own right, a physical and meaningful film which doesn’t just place its actors on a set of Verona and let Shakespeare do all the talking. It is a film which if you surrender yourself to its emotions will undo the mundanities of all those monotonous class room readings and takeover as a tragedy made with purpose.
Unlike Baz Lurhman’s adaptation 28 years later, one that found itself horribly shot to pieces in the cross fire of wanting to be an in-your-face, rock and roll update that preserves the character of the play’s original time and place, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is far more surefooted. It is decidedly non-revisionist, taking place in the Verona of Shakespeare’s own time with his own original dialogue. Zeffirelli’s Verona is an arresting one. The streets and buildings bear a dusty, sandy quality that the vibrant costumes power through, creating a beautiful visual dichotomy, a captivating arena for the story of the star crossed lovers to unfold.
To go into the story with detail would be redundant, but the star crossed lovers are of course Romeo (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet (Olivia Hussey), two teenagers who each belong to two violently feuding houses, the Montague’s and the Capulet’s. After Romeo invades a feast hosted by the Capulet’s, he meets Juliet, and they rapidly grow infatuated with one another, their relationship however doomed to be forbidden by the hatred between the two clans.
Whiting was only 18 and Hussey 17 at the time of the film’s release, and what drives Romeo and Juliet’s romance so effectively is the youthful energy it carries. There is a high-school quality to it, a jubilance and naivety, an absorbing enthusiasm that the two young leads perfectly play out. It’s the fantastically realised character arcs of its two central figures that carries the film, neatly drawn by Zeffirelli and wonderfully brought to life by the performers, as their hopefulness turns to dread. They must know from the outset that their relationship is doomed, and Juliet’s cries grow anguished, Romeo’s, fearful, as they inch closer and closer to their eventual sates of cataclysmic despair.
The unwavering love of our heroes can never escape the juxtaposition of vitriol that characterises the two families dealings with another. There are a series of confrontations, most notably a pair of duels between Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Michael York) and Romeo and his friend Mercutio (John McEnery). Zeffirelli strips the confrontations to the bone and is sure to get in tight to the action, the vicious clanging of Romeo and Tybalt’s blades ferocious and arresting. Zeffirelli doesn’t need to resort to theatrics to heighten his drama. There is a passion and intensity inherent in the film’s conflicts, a constant palpability to the mutually held disdain. The film proving to be as emotionally charged in its violence as it is in its romance.
Although it is a love story, the tale of Romeo and Juliet is deep down occupied with the idea of hatred begetting hatred. Under Zeffirelli this film is not a soapy forbidden love story, it has purpose and drive, and whist it undoubtedly teases a dissension into melodrama with its romantic elements, as the credits roll it is sure to make its understated voice heard.
Zeffirelli manages to wring true poignancy from the story. He treats Shakespeare’s work with dignity and creates a cinematic plunge into the visceral with its emotions of romance, fear and anger. You forget all about the heritage of the play and those famous lines you know are just around the corner, and instead you can experience it as the heartbreaking story it truly is. It is a story about the tragedies of blind hatred, anchored in an authentic youthful romance, and the film keeps these qualities of the story in check with thoughtfulness and nuance, nodding but never tipping into the realm of daytime melodrama along the way.