A review requested by Erin, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

Do you have a movie you'd like to see reviewed? This and other perks can be found on our Patreon page!

The first thing likely to kill any modern performance of William Shakespeare's plays is the line reading. This can go wrong in one of two different ways. First, there's the omnipresent concern that the actor simply won't know what the words mean, and thus will just recite them, without having a clear notion of what they mean, and therefore where they should put the stresses, and what emotions they should be feeling. Second (and in part indulged in by people who fuck up the first one), there's the danger of leaning too much on Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, that nice, steady, ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM pattern that was used in most Elizabethan theater, and can result in a mindless sing-song rhythm if you're not paying attention. Aye, it's verse, but if you're reading Shakespeare out loud, and it doesn't sound like everyday speech, you're definitely doing it wrong. Film adaptations of Shakespeare add a third concern: movies, in general, don't handle florid dialogue nearly as well as live theater does, because cinema lacks theater's expressive grandeur. When the camera is positioning the viewer merely a few feet away (or even less than that!) from a speaker, it feels just all wrong for that speaker to belt out lines that were written to be maximally interpretable from dozens of yards away.

So score the first point for the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet, director Franco Zeffirelli's second of three Shakespearean films: it dodges all three of these traps, sometimes quite well, and quite surprisingly. The film is second-best-known for casting 16-year-old Olivia Hussey as Juliet and 17-year-old Leonard Whiting as Romeo (it is, of course, first-best-known for the scene where the 16- and 17-year-old are naked in bed together), and while Whiting is perfectly okay, Hussey makes for an extraordinarily good Juliet, with a command of the language and emotions of her character that speak to a much, much more sophisticated understanding of the material than a teenager should be expected to have. I would go so far as to say that Hussey only drops the ball for one single line reading: unfortunately, it's a really important one, "This is thy sheath, there rust, and let me die", the last thing her character ever says.

But let us not accentuate the negative. Zeffirelli (himself not a native speaker of English, lest we forget!) did phenomenal work coaxing some incredibly natural, even casual line readings from his cast, which in turns fuels a sense of the characters themselves as naturalistic in a way that no previous filmed version of Shakespeare, to my knowledge, was even trying for, let alone achieved. Hussey's superb, so is Pat Heywood as Juliet's nurse; my favorite member of the cast (giving, in fact, one of my favorite performances of Shakespeare in a movie, period) is the young Michael York in the small role of Tybalt, whose preening smugness glides right off screen through the actor's arch smiles and haughty tone of voice - his reading of "What, drawn, and talk of peace!" is maybe my favorite single line reading in any Shakespeare film, give or take a couple of Orson Welles's choicest bits from the 1966 Chimes at Midnight. Milo O'Shea isn't quite up to their level as Friar Laurence, but he's still excellent, accentuating the comic bluster in a role where that's not the most obvious approach, though it's a solid one. Even Whiting is much better than he has any real reason to be; it's just that he's routinely blown off the screen by Hussey's stronger command of the words, fuller range of emotion, and her amazingly expressive face, with giant almond eyes flashing the extremes of teenage emotion that fuel the story (of course, Juliet is already a better-written part than Romeo, so Hussey gets more to work with. But still).

This more-or-less unprecedented naturalism in screen Shakespeare is part and parcel of why Romeo and Juliet works so well, and why it was such a huge success in 1968. Let us not forget, despite the subsequent 50 years of English-language cinema having a love affair with the Bard that has never dropped off for more than a few years at a time, Shakespeare was once considered a pretty big risk for film producers. During Hollywood's big prestige literature push in the 1930s, the 1935 Warner Bros. A Midsummer Night's Dream and the 1936 MGM Romeo and Juliet were both flops, and the 1929 The Taming of the Shrew with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks was the subject of derisive mockery from just about the moment it premiered. Laurence Olivier's 1940s versions of Henry V and Hamlet were successes, but they inspired no imitators. Welles had his obsessive little cluster of Shakespeare films, but nobody gave a shit about Orson Welles by the then. When Zefferelli came along with The Taming of the Shrew in 1967 and then Romeo and Juliet, he was working largely without benefit of an established marketplace, or a set model for how Shakespeare "should" be filmed.

The model he went with instead was, by and large, to make Romeo and Juliet as though it was any other late-'60s European production. Like a great many other productions from Italy and France around the same time, Romeo and Juliet is in no sense an art film, but it is unavoidably touched by the great arthouse experimenters in those nations from the decade, mostly in the way it borrows from how the French New Wave filmmakers borrowed from the Italian Neorealists of the '40s and early '50s. Hence the laconic naturalism in the performance, and hence the youth-oriented approach to the story. Romeo and Juliet is a play about teen lust, but the teenageness of it tends to be forgotten too often (it's mostly for this reason that the notorious nudity seems appropriate to me, rather than merely prurient: Romeo and Juliet is a horny play); Zeffirelli's film, and particularly his casting of actual teenagers, helps to snap that back in place, and this focus was not lost on the actual teenagers of 1968, who devoured the movie.

That's maybe the big advance of the film: it feels contemporary. Oh, there's plenty of lavish production to be enjoyed, what with the beautiful location photography all throughout Italy, augmented by Renzo Mongiardino's sprawling outdoor sets, making great use of Cinecitta's legendary facilities. It also has beautiful Oscar and BAFTA-winning costumes by Danilo Donati, creating a whirlwind of pan-Renaissance colors and designs, and even adding a bit to the overall vibe of teen sex by virtue of so many codpieces. And of course, composer Nino Rota turned into an instantly-iconic love theme, all yearning, Romantic weeping. It's still a big multi-national spectacle of the sort the '60s were so good at. But its not fussy about it: Zeffirelli's use of the camera, and Pasqualino De Santis's lighting, bring in the other side of '60s filmmaking, the lose, zoom-dominated free style of shooting that every European country (and, right around this time, the United States) started using right around now. For all that it's a costume drama, Romeo and Juliet is especially interested in close-ups of its two leads - which is, itself, quite a striking way to shear away the expressive theatrical qualities of the writing - and it is much more of a character piece than filmed Shakespeare tends to be, then or now.

If Romeo and Juliet was essentially without a model, it certainly provided a model: I would say that most (not all, not by any stretch!) cinema adaptations of Shakespeare since 1968 have largely followed its instinct towards laid-back realism and understated line deliveries. This does strip the film's vigor away: just three years later, Roman Polanski's Macbeth followed the same set of instincts to a much better end result (in part because Macbeth is a better play than Romeo and Juliet, to be sure). While I completely believe that Roger Ebert was being earnest when he said in 1968 that this was the "most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made", that's not a claim that anybody could conceivably make a half-century later (even so, it's still the best filmed version of the Romeo and Juliet story, by a decent margin, with all due apologies to the fans of West Side Story and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet). Still, while the passage of time has somewhat turned this into an ossified prestige film in its own right, it pays to remember that Shakespeare adaptations have become a part of the middlebrow prestige film landscape for a damn good reason.