My high school repeatedly tried to get me to read and enjoy William Shakespeare all through out my four years there, but I resisted as much as I possibly could. I just don't find Shakespeare enjoyable. Sure, his stories are interesting and what not, but that dialogue, my God! I can't make heads or tails of what they are saying half the time. Call me stupid or ignorant or whatever but the works of William Shakespeare are completely overrated.
The first work of his I was forced to read was Romeo and Juliet. Everyone on the planet knows the story of the star-crossed lovers and their tragic fate, so that wasn't difficult for me. What I couldn't stand was that dialogue and the 300 year old humor ("Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?") that's not exactly fresh or comical today. I saw a stage version done by a local college that same year and, although I started to understand it better, I still wasn't impressed. Add to that the lousy 1936 film version that I somehow found the strength to sit through a few months ago and I can tell you just how I excited I was to watch this version of Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli, 1968). Imagine my surprise when it turns out that this film is easily the greatest film adaptation of a Shakespearian work I've ever seen.
Everything about this film is completely cinematic and lightyears away from the stagy and overly theatrical style of the 1936 Cukor version. The opening fight between the servants of the Montagues and Capulets was spectacular in its scope and vision but still kept me guessing as to what was going to happen next. The sword fight between Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt also felt like I was watching it for the first time in the way the two fights are separated and succinct and the savageness of the second fight between Romeo and Tybalt.
Zeffirelli's choice in casting the leads in accordance to the age of the characters was risky but ultimately makes the film that much more fascinating. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were 17 and 16, respectively, at the time of the filming and their performances offer a new perspective on what the whole play is about. The excitement of first-time love has never been portrayed this honestly and emotionally compelling. Even a simple shot of Romeo and Juliet touching for the first time at the masquerade ball is a tender gesture that speaks volumes. Teenage angst, which is almost completely overlooked in other adaptations, takes the spotlight, front and center, in Zeffirelli's version. When Romeo and Juliet, miles away from each other, are crying over his banishment and the fact that they will never get to see each other again, you feel their frustration with their everything and the fact that they really have no idea how to respond to anything; they are only 13 and 16 for God's sakes. It's almost as if they are crying and crying but have no idea why they can't stop.
I thought the lead performances, especially for actors of their age, are exceptional. Olivia Hussey delivers the dialogue nicely, but she really shines in the moments when she doesn't speak and uses her wonderfully expressive face and eyes to convey her love for Romeo or, early on, when she's listening to her mother and her nurse give her the lowdown on marriage. Leonard Whiting is also quite good, nailing the dreamer aspect of Romeo and the fact that he manages to stay completely in character while fighting Tybalt (still hesitant and not that great with a sword) is damn impressive. The thing that struck me the most about Whiting, though, is this similarity:
A little creepy, non? Whiting even gives some of the exact same "I'm so confused!" expressions that Efron nearly trademarked during the High School Musical films.
I haven't seen the Luhrmann version of Romeo and Juliet, but, for some reason, I doubt it can stand up to Zefirelli's completely modern and sexy take on this stale old relic that's been told a hundred times between it's premiere and now. How can you hate a film that makes 16th century fashions so beautiful that I kinda wish they would come back in style? A-