Friday, 26 April 2013

Romeo and Juliet on the Screen: 
Zeffirelli (1968) and Luhrmann (1996)

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Leonard Whiting – Romeo
Olivia Hussey – Juliet
John McEnery – Mercutio
Milo O’Shea – Friar Laurence
Pat Heywood – The Nurse
Michael York – Tybalt
Bruce Robinson – Benvolio

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
Adapted by Franco Brusati, Masolino D’Amico and Franco Zeffirelli.
Colour. 138 min.

With the exception of Hamlet (1990), I am not familiar with other cinematic work of Zeffirelli, but his legendary La Scala production of Puccini's La Boheme (available on DVD with fantastic cast including Mirella Freni and Gianni Raimondi, not to mention Karajan on the rostrum) has long been among my greatest favourites. It has, of course, been criticized exactly for what I think are its chief merits: conservatism, authenticity, desire to realise the vision of the composer and the librettist faithfully yet imaginatively. Just have a look at the DVD cover. It shows the winter street from Act III designed with breathtaking beauty, yet with compelling realism, you won't find in any opera house nowadays.

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is pretty much the same kind of stuff: sumptuous historical sets and costumes, close adherence to Shakespeare's original, no expense spared, no "innovative" touches introduced. Granted for substantial cuts in the text, the addition of few linking phrases and the omission of several minor episodes (e.g. the Apothecary, the murder of Paris), the best lines of Shakespeare's original are retained. The movie is wonderfully atmospheric, with scorching Italian sun and dusty streets in the outdoor scenes, and shot in superb Technicolor. The direction is impeccable, with abundant use of imaginative visual angles and unforgettable close-ups. Only some shaky camera work and a few stagy moments now and then, the latter mostly in the fight scenes, betray the movie's age. Otherwise it has aged hardly at all.

Olivia Hussey as Juliet

Olivia Hussey (what a lovely family name!) must be one of the cutest Juliets ever. I don't know about Romeo, but I am quite smitten with her. Leaving aside that she is lovely, she is also a terrific actress who does a fantastic job conveying Juliet's combination of innocence and shrewdness. Few things to notice: the gorgeous sigh and the brief closing of the eyes, almost coquettish, after Romeo's explanation to the very important question "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?" during the Balcony Scene; the cold sarcasm when addressing the Nurse with "Well, thou hast comforted me marvellous much" or the powerful rage, accompanied with pounding fists on the table, of ''Here's such a coil!''.

The dreamy Leonard Whiting makes for a suitably sweet and ardent Romeo. He is less successful than Olivia but, then again, his character is less interesting and less complex. Revealing moments in his performance include the short monologue while eavesdropping under Juliet's balcony and the remarkably mature turning down of Tybalt's highly insulting ''Thou art a villain.''

Romeo (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet (Olivia Hussey)
In short, both principals look perfect, are of the right age, and act very well. Their mutual scenes have the right doses of passion, simplicity, naturalness and, above all, a complete lack of anything sleazy or sentimental. And yes, the nude scene is beautifully shot, and rather daring for a 1968 movie I should think. 

The rest of the cast is equally unknown to me but equally fine in every way. It is difficult to imagine a more jovial Nurse than Pat Heywood or a more sympathetic Friar Laurence than Milo O'Shea. The best test is the ''improvement'' over the play. While reading I often find the Nurse annoying – her constant chattering may drive one mad – but in the movie she is totally hilarious. Likewise the Friar on the screen, despite his absurd advice ''love moderately'', emerges without a trace of that pomposity that sometimes mars his character on the page. Yes, it pays to actually see and hear a play, even if I insist on first playing it in my mind where I am in charge of the whole production. (And it's fun reading aloud and playing different characters yourself in your own room.)

The youngsters are marvellous bunch, too. Tybalt (Michael York) looks pleasantly unpleasant and is deliciously uncompromising. The charmingly ugly Mercutio (John McEnery) certainly lives up to his name by being the most mercurial of all characters. His Queen Mab narrative is fantastic, not least because of Zeffirelli's ingenious use of two types of lightning: torches and moonlight. My only minor disappointment is the slightly artificial Prince (hardly a youngster this one), but he compensates by being very handsome indeed, and the slightly wooden Benvolio, but that fits his character rather well. By the way, it was nice to ''meet'' John McEnery again in Zeffirelli's Hamlet, although it was also sad to see so gifted an actor reduced to the ungrateful part of Osrik.

Michael York as Tybalt

John McEnery as Mercutio
The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt, the turning point of the play, is one of the highlights of the movie. It is perceptively staged in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek manner, yet another corroboration that the ''ancient grudge'' has lost a lot of its power. Neither of the opponents has any intention of killing the other one. Humiliation is the name of the game, and perhaps a few minor scratches. In fact, Mercutio is stabbed not just ''under Romeo's arm'' but by a sheer accident; Tybalt himself is clearly dismayed by the bloody tip of his sword. Mercutio's dying words are delivered with all of his consummate skill for having fun at the expense of everybody, himself included. When he realizes that the end is near, his voice and face change completely. Yet his death is at first taken by the bystanders as one of his numerous jests. During the whole scene the sound is shrewdly filled with laughing from the crowd. Again, this is a case where seeing is not just believing but indeed understanding. I didn't picture the scene like that while reading, and now I see that I was obviously and painfully short of imagination.

Romeo (Leonard Whiting) slays Tybalt (Michael York)
All in all, Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is a tour de force in every aspect. From cast and costumes to sets and sound, everything fits just swimmingly. There are, of course, minor problems, but these are not worth making any fuss about. I guess this is the closest to definitive screen version of the original and it is likely to remain so for quite some time.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Leonardo DiCaprio – Romeo
Claire Danes – Juliet
Harold Perrineau – Mercutio
Pete Postlethwaite – Friar Laurence
Miriam Margolyes – The Nurse
John Leguizamo – Tybalt
Dash Mihok – Benvolio

Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
Adapted by Craig Peerce and Baz Luhrmann.
Colour. 120 min.

Baz Luhrmann's take is a very different affair indeed. It uses Shakespeare's original text but it attempts to transfer the story into the modern world.

So we have Montagues and Capulets as two powerful mafia families that terrorize Verona Beach with their "civil brawls". Benvolio and the "Montague Boys" are boisterous teenagers, armed to the teeth with shining guns, driving grand and fast cars, and always looking for trouble. Sampson is a colourful guy with pink hair, black eye and yellow temperament. Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) is a freak fond of cross-dressing and singing/dancing in the style of Army of Lovers. Tybalt (John Leguizamo) is a gorgeous Latino guy who dances flamenco while generously sending bullets around. Friar Laurence (Pete Postlethwaite) has a big black cross tattooed on his back and a church that looks like a bunker from the outside and is full of neon crosses inside, not to mention the statue of Jesus on the roof that looks like a sad experiment of a totally talentless art student. It's all very funky, kinky, decadent, violent and, to use Baz Luhrmann's favourite word, rambunctious.

John Leguizamo as Tybalt
Yet to dismiss the movie as pure travesty will not do. Much as I generally despise such modernist experiments – and I have seen some horrendous things on the opera stage – I am surprised how much I enjoyed this one. The ultimate test for any adaptation is not the visual side, but how faithful it is to the spirit of the original and how well it brings out the drama. Indeed the visual side here, unless one suffers from no "vagaries of taste" (Maugham), is not at all without certain appeal, even charm. As for modernization, Shakespeare has through the centuries been modernized in a number of ways without much ado. The Elizabethan spelling, for instance, is not something often encountered in stage productions or book editions, is it? And surely today you wouldn't expect Juliet to be played by a boy, would you? Only a pathological puritan would.

Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes)
Baz Luhrmann is certainly not insensitive to Shakespeare's play. The famous "balcony scene" has been transformed into an equally original and moving "pool scene". The latter allows for more direct physical contact which is handled with remarkable restraint. The first meeting at the party does not lack romance, either, especially with the first glances through that enormous aquarium full of creatures in lovely colours. Nor, for that matter, does the final scene lack pathos. It may be because I have never seen the play on the stage, but it seems to me that Leo di Caprio and Claire Danes do a very good job with what must be a difficult text to speak convincingly. Some moments are visually well-nigh unforgettable. For example, the moment at the party when Romeo realises that Juliet is a Capulet, and at the same time she is told by the Nurse that he is a Montague, is superbly shot in slow motion, with brooding music in the background that suits the occasion to perfection.

There are numerous slight deviations from Shakespeare's play but most of them are either deftly handled or very effective, or both. Though the movie does use the original text, the script is a heavily abridged version of it (with comparatively few lines that are not to be found in the play, or at least not in the New Penguin Shakespeare). The cuts are indeed brilliantly managed. The long final speech of the Friar together with the reconciliation between the heads of the two families are entirely omitted. The words of the Prince, here a police inspector from VBPD (Verona Beach Police Department, presumably), "All are punished" form an excellent conclusion. The long and tedious rambling of the Nurse from I.3. is completely missing, which is indeed an improvement. What is arguably not an improvement is that virtually all monologues, and many of the dialogues, are shortened, sometimes drastically, but this is again so well done that one would never notice it without knowing the play well.

Some plot details also differ from Shakespeare, usually to a great effect. The "pool scene" has already been mentioned, so I may add Mercutio's death and the final scene. In the play Mercutio is stabbed onstage but he dies offstage, having snubbed Romeo by asking Benvolio to take him to the nearest house. This does detract from Mercutio's otherwise admirable death, even if one can understand that he is eager to blame his friend for his own foolishness. In the movie he dies in Romeo's hands, his last words being the famous "A plague a'both your houses!" This is not just effective but indeed affecting, more so than Shakespeare's alternative; also, it gives Romeo a better motive to slay Tybalt. Likewise, in the final scene Juliet wakes almost at the same time as Romeo drinks his poison, which makes for an even more heartrending episode than the one in the play where he is already dead when she comes to her senses.

(However, speaking of the death scene in the movie, it should be noted that ''Isoldes Liebestod'' from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde is a wrong musical choice. The music itself is sublime, of course, but the similarity between the two couples is very superficial. Isolde does sing over Tristan's dead body, but she is transfigured by visions of her lover alive. She doesn't think of suicide at all. Juliet does, and in her final words there is nothing that suggests hallucinations.)

On several occasions even whole scenes are deleted and whole characters are altered in comparison with Shakespeare. It would be too much to say that any of these instances is an improvement over the play, but nor is any of them detrimental. I don't know why Baz Luhrmann decided to cut Juliet's charmingly ironic submission to the old Capulet as well as the bustle and hustle around her marriage with Paris that makes such an engaging contrast with the discovery of her ''death''. Both scenes would have looked really fine on the screen, yet none is really a major loss. The character of Lady Capulet, on the other hand, has been transformed into a hysterical creature that bears little resemblance to her stage precursor. But this is a splendid source of farcical relief in an otherwise rather violent story.

Dash Mihok as Benvolio during the opening scene
On the whole, Baz Luhrmann's adaptation is a bizarre stuff but not to be written off easily. My only complaint is his direction which sometimes tends to become a little too frenetic. The fight between Tybalt and Romeo which Mercutio fatally interferes with – another very imaginative interpretation of the original which gives little action material to work on – looks a little chaotic. The opening scene is an even better example. It is pure farce in the play and it is rightly over the top in the movie, taking place at a gas station where the gorgeously dressed Tybalt dances his "guns flamenco". Unfortunately the idea, fine in itself, is realised in a completely overblown manner which largely ruins the comic effect that it should normally produce. Last and least, some incidents are actually handled more unconvincingly in the movie than they are in the play – which is strange considering cinema's much greater opportunities. For example, Romeo's not noticing the exceptionally important letter from the Friar, which moreover he expects, stretches credulity almost to the breaking point.

Never mind. Such minor nuisances don't detract much of the movie as a whole. Definitely not what one would expect from a Shakespeare's play to look like on the screen, but fascinatingly done all the same. Surely the wrong way to experience the original text spoken for the first time, and I still think an adapted screenplay would have been better. Yet the movie might well have inspired some teenagers to try reading Shakespeare seriously, or seeing traditional productions of his plays, and if it has done that – and I am almost sure it has – it has done more than enough.

Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes)
All that said, there really is no basis for comparison between both versions. Zeffirelli wins on all counts: cast, acting, direction, adaptation. His version has aged fantastically well and still shows that the story of Romeo and Juliet doesn't really need any modernization in order to be engrossing and affecting. As a kind of modern curiosity, however, Baz Luhrmann's controversial take is an interesting oddity not to be despised at all.

Romeo (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet (Olivia Hussey)

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