Zeffirelli helps to reinvent Shakespeare on film as vibrant, urgent, young and sexy
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Cast: Leonard Whiting (Romeo), Olivia Hussey (Juliet), John McEnery (Mercutio), Milo O’Shea (Friar Laurence), Pat Heywood (Nurse), Paul Hardwick (Lord Capulet), Natasha Perry (Lady Capulet), Robert Stephens (Prince), Michael York (Tybalt), Bruce Robinson (Benvolio)
When Romeo and Juliet was released in 1968, it was like a shot of adrenalin into the heart of Shakespeare. It was a play where audiences were used to middle-aged classical actors posing as teenage lovers (not just on stage: the last Hollywood version cast Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer with a combined age of 76). It was a play of wispy poetry, light breaking from yonder windows and stately tragedy. What it definitely wasn’t, was a young play. A play full of vibrant energy, youthful abandon and plenty of sex and violence. Zeffirelli’s film changed that: it was fast, sexy and above all young. It was unlike any Romeo and Juliet many cinema goers had seen before.
Everything new is eventually old of course. So influential was Zeffirelli’s film, it came to be remembered as a “tights and poetry” epic. Its traditional Renaissance Italian setting and well-spoken cast came 30 years later to represent the very same stuffy traditionalism it was kicking in the shins. When Baz Luhrmann released his William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, full of fast-paced editing, MTV tunes, gunplay and horny, Verona Beach teenagers, it was biting its thumb at the revolutionary style of Shakespeare Zeffirelli had introduced.
But, such is the richness of Shakespeare, there is more than enough room for both visions. Watching the film today is still to be struck by its pace and energy. This is a grimy, immediate film which Zeffirelli frequently shoots with a handheld intensity (particularly in the film’s sequences of violence). The costumes may have a primary-coloured sheen to them, but the emotions are raw and dangerous. There is a comedic zip and energy to its first half, which gives way to a grim sense of inevitable tragedy, that always seems just a few adjusted decisions away from being averted.
To pull the film together, Zeffirelli made some tough decisions. Almost 65% of the dialogue was jettisoned, most notably the whole of Juliet’s speech prior to taking the sleeping drug. Everything was cut and arranged to play to the strengths of his cast. His young lovers were great at the physical and emotional teenage energy, so that’s what Zeffirelli focused on. He cast two unknowns: 17-year-old Leonard Whiting and 15-year-old Olivia Hussey. Both had exactly the sort of unfussy naturalism he was looking for, playing the roles with a breathless, energetic genuineness.
They are, of course, not the greatest performers of the roles you will ever see. But Whiting’s Romeo is passionate, naïve and utterly believable as the sort of love-struck teenager who will choose oblivion when he’s lost his true love. Hussey (who, unlike Whiting, continued as an actor) has a wonderful innocent quality and a forceful determination underneath it. The two of them throw themselves into every scene (and each other) with gusto, rolling on the floor in despair or bounding into fights and arguments as if every word or blow will be their last.
It’s a youthful energy that the whole film bottles up and sells to the audience. Its opening scene takes the “I bite my thumb at you sir” classicism of the initial Montague-Capulet clash, and throws it into a dusty street brawl that sucks in most of the city. The camera weaves among this action, as people fly at each other, onlookers run in panic and extras’ bodies pile into the scuffle.
It’s an effective entrée for the film’s most effective sequence: the plot-turning fight that leads to the death of Mercutio and Tybalt. Zeffirelli brilliantly stages this as youthful bravado and hot-headedness that gets out of hand. Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight is initially more performative than deadly (so much so Mercutio’s friends don’t realise he’s been wounded until he dies) – only Romeo’s attempts to stop it cause it to escalate. Tybalt is horrified at the possibility he has harmed Mercutio and flees in terror. Mercutio maintains a front of all-good-fun that turns more and more into bitterness. Romeo’s revenge on Tybalt starts as an out-matched sword fight but turns into a brutal, dusty scrabble on the ground, with fists and daggers flying. All shot and staged with an improvisational wildness, people in the crowd ducking out of the way. It still carries real immediacy.
It’s particularly effecting as, until then, the film is arguably a romantic comedy. The first half not only surrenders itself to the youthful abandon and passion of the lovers, it’s also not adverse to a bit of knock-about farce with the Nurse (a fine performance of gruff affection from Pat Heywood). The Capulets’ ball is staged as another immersive scene, Nina Rota’s music helping to create one of the best renaissance courtly dances on film. With Romeo blanked by an austere Rosalind (who seems to barely know who he is), it zeroes in on the intense, can’t-take-my-eyes-off-you bond between the two lovers. All of it shot with a dreamy romantic intensity.
That carries across to the balcony scene, that again stresses the dynamism and sexual longing that revolutionises the poetry-and-posing the scene had become in people’s minds. This is after all a young couple who can’t keep their hands off each other to such an extent, they have to be physically separated by Friar Laurence (a cuddly Irish Milo O’Shea, over-confident and ineffective) before their marriage.
It makes it all the more striking then when the second half tips into melancholy and heartbreak. Zeffirelli brings the focus even more intensely onto the lovers. As well as Juliet’s speech, the Apothecary and Romeo’s killing of Paris (shot but cut as there were worries it would make the hero less sympathetic) are ditched, and the action is streamlined and runs inexorably to Romeo’s decease and the camera’s focus on Juliet’s hand as she begins to come back to life.
It’s a film full of interesting little side notes and character interpretations. John McEnery’s energetically manic and witty Mercutio (he, along with O’Shea handles much of the actual Shakespeare) is excellent, with more than a hint of a repressed homoerotic longing for Romeo. Natasha Perry’s austere Lady Capulet flirts openly with Michael York’s fiery Tybalt (their secret affair now a popular interpretation) while Paul Hardwick’s bluster as Capulet carries an air of desperation, with Zeffirelli capturing sad glances at his wife. To bolster its Shakespeare credentials, Olivier speaks the prologue (as well as dubbing multiple members of the Italian cast) for no pay or credit (though he must have known there was zero chance of his famous voice not being recognised!).
Zeffirelli’s film may just be, in its way, one of the most important Shakespeare films in history. If Olivier had shown Shakespeare could work as spectacle and Welles that it could be art, Zeffirelli showed it could be exciting and cinematic. That energy and filmic motion didn’t need to serve the poetry. It became so influential, that it eventually came to be seen decades later as “classical Shakespeare”. But it helped lay the groundwork for a series of films and productions that would leave posing, poetical renditions of the Bard behind.