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Romeo and Juliet Movie Review

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1968 – Franco Zeffirelli –

The two leads were only 15 (Olivia Hussey) and 17 (Leonard Whiting) when filming began, and though the demands of the Shakespearean verse sometimes overmatch them (especially Whiting), young audiences in the late 1960s responded to this story of young love from the early 1590s. Much of Zeffirelli's attention wisely goes toward “ventilating” the play, as it used to be called, opening up scenes with lavish production values and an epic scope. Fight scenes that might take a minute or two in a stage production receive full-scale choreography in the film. Sometimes Zeffirelli revels in the new freedom in films by injecting some Renaissance earthiness, as in the quick shots of Michael York's sword thrust into an opponent's eye, Mercutio's exploratory sniff under the nurse's dress, and the glimpse of Romeo's bare bottom in the morning-after scene (this last was both celebrated and slightly notorious at the time of the film's release). The richness of style offsets in many ways the acting limitations of the leads and the extensive cuts in the text (Zeffirelli omitted over half of the play). Consequently, what most people will remember is not the poetry that remains in the film but some of Zeffirelli's images, many of them shot from very high vantage points: the clash between Montagues and Capulets in the opening, the bodies of Mercutio and Tybalt strewn at the feet of the Prince (Robert Stephens), Romeo standing in the half-light reflecting on his new love.

George Cukor, who directed the 1936 MGM version of the play with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, commented on the differences between the two films with some insightful remarks about both. He conceded that Zeffirelli infused the later version with more energy and even a sense of tragic desperation. Cukor sounded as if he envied the young audiences the newer film pulled into theaters, and he admitted that Howard and Shearer were not “really passionate actors,” going even so far as to call them “too stodgy.” On the other hand, Cukor maintained that his version was more faithful to the poetry and that if he were to remake the film he would “get the garlic and the Mediterranean into it.”

Cast: Leonard Whiting (Romeo), Olivia Hussey (Juliet), Michael York (Tybalt), Pat Heywood (the Nurse), John McEnery (Mercutio), Milo O'Shea (Friar Laurence), Roberto Bisacco (Paris), Paul Hardwick (Lord Capulet), Natasha Parry (Lady Capulet), Bruce Robinson (Benvolio), Antonio Pierfederici (Lord Montague), Esmeralda Ruspoli (Lady Montague), Robert Stephens (Prince of Verona), Laurence Olivier (prologue narrator), Dyson Lovell (Sampson), Richard Warwick (Gregory) Screenwriter: Franco Brusati, Maestro D'Amico, Franco Zeffirelli Cinematographer: Pasqualino De Santis Composer: Nino Rota Producer: John Brabourne and Anthony Havelock-Allan for Verona; distributed by Paramount MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 138 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards 1968: Cinematography, Costume Design; Nominations: Director (Franco Zeffirelli), Picture; Golden Globe Awards 1969: Foreign Film; National Board of Review Awards 1968: 10 Best Films of the Year, Director (Franco Zeffirelli).

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