Reviewer: Charity Bishop
"My only love hath sprung from my only hate."
The fateful words of Shakespeare's tragic heroine Juliet come vibrantly and tragically to life. Under the direction of Franco Zefirreli (Hamlet) and starring two virtually unknown thespian actors, Romeo & Juliet was nominated for four Academy Awards. The story is as old as time itself. The tragedy one of Shakespeare's finest and most well-known works. It is the story of two families torn apart by a long feud, unified only through desperation and tragedy... and the lives of their children.
Romeo Montague (Leonard Whiting) is a spry and romantic young man with high aspirations. Juliet Capulet (Olivia Hussey) is a ravishing beauty not yet fifteen and promised in marriage to a respectable lord. But their parents' good aspirations turn sour when Montague and his fellow cousins slip unnoticed into the Capulet's evening ball, where Juliet is at her finest. It is love at first sight, but alas... when they know one another by name, the world comes crashing down. For Juliet is his sworn enemy, and Romeo hers. Fleeing from his drunken and loud comrades into Juliet's garden, Romeo overhears her musing to herself of dearest Romeo and the sunlight opens upon the two lovers exchanging vows of adoration over the balcony ball. Willing to marry the love of his life, Romeo secures vows that they will meet again and arranges a wedding with the priest.
From there the tragedy of Shakespeare's compelling love story unfolds, from the sweet meeting in the church to the final and ominous ending sequence. The film is a masterpiece in exquisite costuming and a cast that well portrays the lines as they were meant to be spoken... with vibrant life and passion. I had never been a true fan of Shakespeare until now. The casting of two young and virtually unknown players in the title roles was brilliant. Young Olivia Hussey looks a cross between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rachael Leigh Cook, with heartbreakingly beautiful eyes and expressions. The balcony scene in particular is beautifully romantic and mesmerizing... it's wonderful to see the young actors so enraptured with the poetic dialogue. One does tire of the endless sobbing and wailing in the last quarter of the film, but altogether it's a well made production... and I'm sorry I cannot recommend it without caution.
There are a few points I must elaborate on, for while the film is well put together and faithful to its era, much in the style of a breathtaking Renaissance painting, it is not without its faults. Shakespeare's dialogue does not halt at taking God's name in vain several times, nor uttering a few cocky innuendos. Some cheeky Montagues playfully look up a woman's dress. The swordplay is magnificent and not overly bloody, but one has difficulty paying attention due to the flagrant design of the male cast's pants. All skin-tight, with the tunics not down quite far enough, certain padding is made to enhance their manliness. Juliet shows some excessive cleavage in the balcony scene. Grief is violently expressed. Passionate kisses are exuberant and found often. But easily overlooking these flaws, it is the bedroom scene that heralds caution. It contains rear male nudity in half a dozen shots and brief breast-nudity of Juliet, which is shocking considering that the girl was truly only fifteen at the time. You can foresee it coming, and hopefully fast forward without catching an eyeful, but it's a sorry stain upon an otherwise brilliant piece of work.
Zefirrelli took some liberties with Shakespeare's original script for the sake of brevity, but unless you are a die-hard purist, this is a minor flaw. The ballroom scene, in which Romeo and Juliet first dance, and later upon the balcony are the two that most stand out. Mercutio's playful and often witty lyricism is comical and yet heart-rendering when he realizes that his jest so often has cost him his life. Familiar faces pop in now and again, and the score carries a tune elaborated on in the Hallmark presentation of yet another tragedy... The Return of the Native. A lovely piece of work, well crafted, excellently acted, but sadly overshadowed by its flaws.