Also known as Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, this take on one of Shakespeare’s most reknowned works stars Leonard Whiting as Juliet’s “only love” and Olivia Hussey as Romeo’s “lady”. A more familiar face is that of Michael York in the role of Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin. Although it’s uncredited, you may also recognize the voice of Laurence Olivier as the voice of the Narrator.
Romeo is a Montague. Juliet, a Capulet. Their families have been at a literal war in “three civil brawls bred of an airy word”. When at first they meet, neither realizes that the other is sprung from their “only hate”. They fall in love and elope. That’s when everything truly goes wrong. Juliet has been promised to Count Paris. Romeo is banished by the prince. With the help of Friar Lawrence, Juliet devises a plan to reunite them, but Romeo never receives instruction for his part of the plan.
While there is arguably no one in the world who is unfamiliar with the plot of this story, Zeffirelli does a fantastic job making us feel as if we are citizens of Verona, forging a stronger connection to the characters than we had from simply reading the play. His direction of this classic story, which was recognized with an Academy Award nomination, is largely the reason that this particular version has stood the test of time. He did not win the Oscar, but this film did receive two from its four nominations.
Other than a few editing issues, the film is beautifully shot and raw. Considering that Shakepeares sword-fighting scenes simply were written as: “They fight.”, watching the dance that had evolved from Zeffirelli’s mind made Mercutio’s explanation to Romeo of being “hurt under your arm” finally become crystal to me. The downfall in this film is some of the translation. There are some very distinct sections of the prose that are delivered suggesting definitions that do not fit them at all. This is partially the fault of actors who don’t properly research their lines, but in the end, I suppose Zeffirelli had to have a flaw.
While I didn’t see from Romeo’s perspective what was so intriguing about Juliet, I found myself falling in love with Romeo right along with her. Perhaps the omission of what sparked Romeo’s desire is simply stated by Friar Lawrence (“Young men’s love, then, lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”). I’m also not sure if it was a decision on the part of Shakespeare or of Zeffirelli to make the Capulets the obvious bad guys. At any rate, this is a piece of art that I believe should be seen by everyone. I’m not here to bash Baz Luhrmann’s rendition, but this film thoroughly captures what Shakespeare intended for us to see.