Romeo and Juliet (1968): United Kingdom/Italy – directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Rated G by the MPAA – contains some mild violence and brief nudity/sexual content (re-rated PG in 1973)
I am not overly familiar with the dozens of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Nor am I overly familiar with the Bard’s original play, though the 1968 film version is an appropriate place to start for the uninitiated. Elaborately staged, with the entirety of the dialogue taken straight from the script, as it were, Romeo and Juliet has only a few problems that keep it from attaining greatness.
The story is not to be blamed, though a modern viewer might be excused for thinking that it is unoriginal. It appears unoriginal only because the source material is so old. There may be nothing new under the sun, but when William Shakespeare was active he laid down the basic premises and storylines for a vast amount of the narrative fiction that followed. I doubt the themes were new even in the late 1500’s, but he may be credited with first popularizing such conventions.
As a result, the story will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a film or attended a play. The two heroes are Romeo (Leonard Whiting), of the house Montague, and Juliet (a frighteningly young Olivia Hussey), a member of the Capulet family. The Montague’s and Capulet’s do not get along, as evidenced by an early brawl in the streets of Verona. The Prince (Robert Stephens) will have none of it and declares a harsh moratorium on public dueling.
Meanwhile, Romeo finds himself attending a party thrown by the Capulets. His eye alights on Lord Montague’s daughter, Juliet, and it is love at first sight. The two of them swear their eternal devotion to each other on Juliet’s balcony, in an oft-parodied scene. But their romance will not be able to last, as their families are in a state of cold war. Even a clandestine marriage will not save them from an eventual violent conflict.
The film decided to rip the dialogue straight from the source, but it is not as distracting as one might imagine. At times the Old English is a little difficult to understand, but it is not necessary to catch every word in order to enjoy the experience and follow the general storyline. The filmmakers opted for an elaborate staging of the tale, crafting huge and impressive sets to portray the streets of Verona. The costumes are similarly extravagant, though I cannot vouch for their historical accuracy. The men’s leggings and codpieces, often crafted from clashing colors, are slightly humorous and certainly distracting. Juliet’s costumes are likewise occasionally distracting, especially when they attempt to emphasize non-existent cleavage.
The brief scene that Romeo and Juliet spend together, after they are married, comes off as rather shocking in this day and age. Nudity, on both of their parts, is almost disturbing given that the actors were approximately 17 and 16 when it was filmed. As a result the scene is not as tender and romantic as it could have been. Perhaps audience’s reactions differed in 1968; I suspect modern Western society’s obsession with “underage” nudity and sex will leave some viewers unnerved.
The acting is strong, particularly from an emotional Hussey, and helps provide a cohesive experience. The dialogue varies from strange and archaic to transcendent, and it is frequently a joy to hear the Bard’s words verbatim. The film may leave some viewers cold, as the production is a bit sterile and it is a struggle to become emotionally involved when many of the words are so foreign. Fans of classic literature should be able to appreciate this adaptation, and it is a fitting introduction for those unfamiliar with the story of Romeo and Juliet.