Before Baz Luhrmann’s radical reinvention in 1996, the tale of star-crossed lovers and forbidden love got the big-screen outing in 1968 with Franco Zefirelli’s operatic and grand epic. In a lot of ways, this remains the quintessential adaptation of one of the Bard’s most famous plays; from the opening shots of Verona to the lavish sequence at Capulet’s ball, you’ll be instantly transported from this time and place to the Italian Renaissance. In many ways, this feels like a real period piece with the film’s attention-to-detail being absolutely breathtaking and the stunning cinematography with the sweeping colourful panoramas is eye-catching, even for its time.
More than anything, this film still retains that vivid lushness and energy after 48 years, still unsurpassed by other versions despite the provocative nature of Luhrmann’s version. This film retains the classic elements from Shakespeare’s play (love, lust, longing, revenge, angst, tragedy, death, etc.), but elevates them in grand dramatic fashion, making the whole experience quite grand and operatic in its execution. Romeo and Juliet’s story began in one huge whirlwind and ended in one with the final outcome being the unfortunate, tragic deaths of two teens caught in a star-crossed romance.
All this is helped by a handful of spectacular performances; with both Leonard Whiting at 17 and Olivia Hussey at 15, this is perhaps the most accurate depiction of the titular protagonists we have seen thus far for they are the age Shakespeare intended them to be, and together Whiting and Hussey portray them magnificently with very believable chemistry. Leonard Whiting gives a very charismatic, yet nuanced performance, not only capturing Romeo, but also making us identify with him and what he’s going through emotionally. However, Olivia Hussey is simply exceptional as Juliet and gives a knockout performance worthy of praise. She radiates grace, elegance, and beauty, capturing the compassion and innocence the character embodies, making Hussey the definitive Juliet to date.
In regards to the unfortunate ending of doomed love, that scene alone could’ve gone completely off the rails and done in overblown fashion, but both Whiting and Hussey convincingly deliver the passion and grief in that final tomb sequence, making you experience that tragedy like you’ve never seen it before. The rest of the supporting performances are incredibly solid and worthy of praise, with John McEnry being whimsically hot-tempered as Mercutio, Michael York chewing-the-scenery as Tybalt (“Now hie thee home, fragment!”) and Pat Heywood bringing real life and energy into the part of the Nurse. Another aspect that works so well is Nino Roto’s majestic score as he does an excellent job of combining the light-heartedness and optimism of Romeo in the beginning with the tragic and foreboding feel of the famous Love Theme.
Just recently, BFI oversaw a re-release of this film to coincide with their Shakespeare program, and even after all this time, the film perfectly stands on its own as an engaging, engrossing piece of cinema. Thanks to Franco Zeffirelli, Shakespeare’s timeless “tale of woe” was brought to life so compellingly and in such a magnificent manner, thanks to lavish set-design, a grand musical score, and an array of grand performances, particularly from Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey who both breathe life into the titular star-crossed lovers and doing them justice.
Dir: Franco Zeffirelli
Scr: Franco Brusati, Masolino D’Amico, Franco Zeffirelli
Cast: Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Milo O’Shea, Michael York, John McEnery, Natasha Parry, Pat Heywood, Robert Stephens, Bruce Robinson
Prd: John Bradbourne, Anthony Havelock-Allan
DOP: Pasqualino De Santis
Music: Nino Roto
Country: UK, Italy
Run time: 138 mins
Romeo and Juliet is available to own on DVD.