1968 / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #246: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Back to Shakespeare now and a play that we’ve seen adapted before in the form of Romeo and Juliet. However, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1960s adaptation also wowed at the box office becoming the most commercially successful Shakespeare adaptation at that time.

Part of the reason for this success has to be attributed to the fact that it had a more contemporary feel than the Shakespearian movies that Olivier was making. Additionally, it was the first time that the two actors playing the titular lovers were of a similar age. Teenage viewers saw the film in their droves due to the fact that fifteen year old Olivia Hussey and seventeen year old Leonard Whiting played the lead roles. Indeed their casting caused controversy not least because of Hussey appearing in a very brief nude scene. I personally felt that their casting added a lot to the overall believability of the story and can see why it would appeal to a younger audience. Hussey especially excelled at portraying Juliet’s naive qualities and really made you believe that Romeo was her first love. Personally I wasn’t as much a fan of Whiting, however he was still compelling in the scenes in which Romeo kills Tybalt and essentially ruins any chance of happiness he had with Juliet. While we’re on the subject of the cast I felt that Michael York was perfectly snide as Tybalt while Milo O’Shea was a great choice to play Romeo’s confident Friar Lawrence. The whole film was also given a bit of Shakespearian authenticity by the fact that Laurence Olivier provided the voice-over for the film, even though he was never credited.

Away from the casting, the other reason for the film’s success was its use of colour and setting to convey the story. I personally loved the Oscar-winning costume designs which were used to differentiate the two warring families. While the Montagues war drab greys and blues, the Capulets were decked out in brighter colours and were definitely viewed as the richer of the two tribes. The fact that the whole film was shot in Rome added to the authenticity of the film and the exterior shots were particularly impressive. Indeed Pasqualino De Santis’ cinematography also won an Oscar and I felt his visuals shone throughout the film. I personally felt that the balcony scene and the duels which saw the deaths of both Mercutio and Tybalt were brilliantly filmed. Even though the style and the casting were spot on, I can’t say that I was completely wowed by the film. At well over two hours, I found the film dragged and there were some scenes that still didn’t really work on film. Overall though, Zeferelli was the first director to give Romeo and Juliet that cinematic flare that it so richly deserved. The use of colour, setting and age-appropriate actors all added to the original text and I ultimately found this film to be a rewarding watch.


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