#437: Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet
The definitive film adaptation of the Shakespeare play for 30 years
Initial release: 1968
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
I’ve said this before, but I have a specific criteria for Shakespeare on film when it comes time to review an adaptation: first and foremost, it must be a period piece, ideally one appropriate to the original setting; next in importance is that it be in English and adhere closely to the original script. And lastly, it needs to be a film, not just a recording of a stage production, or to have cinematography so bland you could hardly tell.
Considering how important Shakespeare is to English and culture, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more films that meet this criteria, but here we are. Which brings us to Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of the bard’s seminal tragic romance, Romeo and Juliet.
Before I get into the film proper, if you slept through English class here’s the gist of the play: two families in Verona, the Montagues and Capulets, have long been feuding, much to the reigning prince’s annoyance; however, Romeo, the young son of one family, and Juliet, the even younger daughter of the other, fall in love; forced to keep it secret, they get married with the hope of reconciling the two families. Unfortunately when fighting breaks out between the two families again, Romeo winds up getting exiled. Juliet, now about to be married off to someone else, fakes her own death, but Romeo doesn’t get the memo and kills himself in grief at her crypt; when Juliet awakens, she discovers Romeo dead at her feet, and uses his dagger to follow him into the afterlife.
All very tragic, of course, but an argument could be made that it’s less about the romance (Juliet is just 13, and Romeo is 16 — they’re still just kids) and more about how violence, and old hatreds, are ultimately ruinous. After all, it’s the feuding between the Capulets and Montagues that makes the relationiship so perilous; it’s also the boyish strutting that leads to fighting in the street, something Romeo himself gets swept up in when Mercutio is killed.
Zeffirelli’s adaptation is as straight an adaptation as you can get while still being cinematic. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame is getting a pair of teenagers to take the lead roles, breaking the long tradition of casting adults, some of them pushing into middle age. Zeffirelli makes the setting feel alive (with Rome sometimes standing in for Verona) through effective camera work, allowing the characters to exist within it rather than upon it, with Romeo climbing trees, the nurse greeting the Montagues on some steps, and the fateful quarrel that triggers Romeo’s exile beginning near a fountain. Exteriors are brightly lit; you can just feel the hot summer stirring up angry youths looking for a scrap.
Purists may find fault in the trimming of some parts; Zeffirelli gave the kids leading the show a break and cut some of their longer monologues; by contrast, there’s some new dialogue as well, notably Juliet’s nurse calling Mercutio a “punk rampant” after he briefly bullies her on the church steps. (Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is kept in, given by John McEnry as a spectacular drunken rant that puts him in the same category as Michael York’s scene-stealing Tybalt.)
Briskly paced and sharply directed, Romeo and Juliet might not appeal to the high school English crowd the same way as the modernized 90s update did, but it’s still a solid way to experience the play on screen.