What ‘Romeo and Juliet’ meant to the 20th century was defined in many ways by Franco Zeffirelli: indeed, Celia Daileader thinks that “everything good and anything bad about Shakespeare on film can be blamed on him”. The “unwritten words” of the now immortal story have always been there – it is not “written”, for instance, at least not in so many words, that Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage – and modern cinema has grasped at opportunities to make of “swords” the brand of street gangs’ handguns, chemical ecstasy of Queen Mab, or corporate, mafia-inflected households of Capulet and Montague. Zeffirelli’s nostalgia for a velvetine Italy populated by youths in codpieces and ballet slippers runs absolutely counter to the grain of Shakespeare’s fashionable, rude, and daring proto-gothic adventure (itself an adaptation of a racy, violent poem) which is replete with secret meetings with friars, disinterred females and graveyard murders. The Age of Aquarius was conceivably turned on or amused by Romeo and Juliet ’68 – the pre-play film Zeffirelli tested out on London revolutionaries – but not (as Shaughnessy thinks) because it reflected their values. [see my angry comment on Shaughnessy below.] Revolutionaries have been known to like good art, after all. The final blockbuster ’60s movie, as it happens, is good art, but acutely un-cool and redoundingly a-political. This shows, for instance, in the decidedly ‘folkish’ delivery of the Queen Mab speech by the excellent, almost humpbacked John McEnery, which appeals not to global revolution but to ‘Peter Pan’-esque nostalgia. Its storyteller’s set-up features many Montague mates looking earnestly jolly and attentive in a way hippies would have found acutely embarrassing. Shakespeare’s name, then, or so my argument goes, is paradoxically traduced all the most just where it seems to be most conservatively vindicated, under the laurels of Franco Zeffirelli. Yet the later masterpiece, Luhrmann’s, which I consider ‘true’ Shakespeare, in representing the “Prodigious birth of love”, copies much from the earlier film. The scenario for I.v., for example, uses the cantatrice Des’ree singing ‘I’m Kissing You’ in place of Nino Rota’s ministrello, the ‘What is a Youth?’ ballad. Several more moments (Romeo’s interruption of the Queen Mab speech; the Prince’s echoing verdict ‘All are punished”) are copied as explicit homage. Thus Shakespeares build on Shakespeares, and “truth” once lost is impossible to lose for ever.
My basic thesis is that Baz Luhrmann (1996) transformed the latently paedophiliac luxuriance of Franco Zeffirelli (1968) into a version of Romeo and Juliet that offers an attractive jadedness, a postmodern maturity, and a consciously chosen purity, which patronises the aspirations of ’90s and Noughties adolescents to a far lesser extent than Romeo & Juliet ’68 did the children of Flower Power and global revolution. Luhrmann’s lovers show awareness, like Criseyde in Troilus, of their “star-cross’d” state, but the awareness is almost unconscious. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte and all that. Danes delivers the full sophistication of Shakespeare’s text in what Goldberg calls the “second” balcony scene (“Be fickle, fortune”). This is paradoxically a consequence of her (Daileader) “appearing not to understand the words”. (Words running away with humans, in Shakespeare’s world, is at the crux of this drama.) That said, Danes’s “think’st thou we shall ever meet again?” is a genuine communicative moment, carrying grave symbolic depth; in the earlier film, by contrast, it has mere token value. No “ill-divining soul” lines can be accommodated by the dominant ideology of “fair Verona” as introduced by Laurence Olivier: prescience, melancholy and doom are externalities in the Zeffirelli, not psychological internalities ‘ageing’ the infantile Hussey/Whiting fantasy. Olivier, placatory voice of the Institution, acts as the sleeping potion that de-politicises our viewership. By appropriating Chorus and Prince’s lines, ‘romancing’ Zeffirelli’s reality, Sir Lawrence defuses our need for a social explanation. In a fascinating echoing of names and functions. Pete Postlethwaite/Laurence, thirty years later, inverts this by taking Verona Beach’s social issues incredibly seriously. Postlethwaite’s character treats the “prodigious birth” with something bordering on awe; astutely observes the dynamics of decadent capitalism; monitors (as a Christian) the Montague-Capulet corporate feud. By contrast, Zeffirelli’s Milo O’Shea had a limited, head-patting paternalism and his repeated “I dare no longer stay” was self-interested, not sublime. It should be clear by now that I see Romeo and Juliet (’68) as an aesthetically marvellous but resolutely anti-political film which requires a 70% cut of Shakespeare’s words, and W.S.’s Romeo+Juliet (’96) as a more loyal adaptation, which levels blame at society, critiques (in this case decadent, rather than emergent) capitalism, and honours ‘alternative’ or ‘youth’ culture whilst not divorcing the ‘cool’ from the ‘uncool’ as non-young filmmakers are wont to do. In Verona Beach, Claire Danes’s angel wings perform a kind or irony: seeming to mock standard pop conceptions of Juliet, they also refuse to rebel against them, but lend real self-determination and gravitas to her later dalliance with the heavenly afterlife by means of her designer revolver of her designer poison. I believe one of the clearest examples of Shakespeare’s masterful, ironising, honorific lines for Juliet is: “Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief” – a line Zeffirelli cut. It is a line that proves to me how the original tale of ‘Juliet, and her Romeo’ depended on a textually self-aware, extraordinarily wise 13-year-old woman. Olivia Hussey gives us something charming, but altogether different. Luhrmann’s Juliet hits, in my view, much closer to the mark (if indeed ‘truth to the bard’ is the ‘mark’ – which perhaps for Zeffirelli it never was).
Luhrmann makes of DiCaprio a veritable clown, for half a minute, as he capers about the suddenly flood-lit poolside chez Capulet, farcically grabbing at towels in order to blend in next to a faux-Roman statue beside which Juliet then appears, delivering her speech with far more humour (“or any other part belinging to a man”) and world-wisdom (“What’s in a name?”) than Olivia Hussey could with her impetuously infantile rendition of “that dear perfection which he oweth”. The Zeffirelli balcony scene set, overgrown, soft focus, verdant, resembles a chivalric faeryland: the teenagers take themselves very seriously; their love conversely feels completely unserious. By Luhrmann, the same scene produces a sense of miracle by virtue of the very slapstick (statues knocked, hide-and-seek games with the watchmen on CCTV, irate Nurse) framing the lovers’ scarcely plausible, but true, sense of commitment to each other. It is telling that Zeffirelli retains “I should have been more strange, I must confess” whilst Luhrmann cuts the majority of that courtly gaming, which this generation would certainly receive as (confusing) flirtation, unworthy of the sophisticated (cool enough not to need to be cool) youth role model of the Claire Danes figure. The lightness of the scene, then, is preserved in the comical devices of Luhrmann, being excised to some extent from the coy banter in Juliet’s lines. Knight Leonardo here is grown up enough, too, to seem all the more sincere for being ironically clad. The earlier Leonard, by contrast, has no ratiocinative aspect, only raw libidinous ardour: he gets ‘masculinity added’ to his flower-toting homoerotic initial image when he swings off a tree by the balcony like a monkey – this presumably representing virile delirium induced by Juliet’s (“heavily bolstered” – Celia Daileader) cleavage. We understand here why Zeffirelli in I.v. cut “You kiss by the book” while making Leonard Whiting dance, thereby necessitating the cut of the “soles of lead” speech and Juliet’s line “who’s he that .. would not dance”. This Leo is no contemplative “Hamlet in love”, and nothing should suggest the – nevertheless gutturally responsive – Hussey, flitting to and fro like a caught wasp on the balcony, has ever had a snog from a man in tights before.
Critics I’ve read have omitted to comment on the fact that Danes and DiCaprio’s peak of bliss occurs in the interstitial space of the gilt elevator in the Capulet household whilst the ball is in full swing. Luhrmann introduces the music, doom-laden eyes, and change of pace that signals Fate and death as early, therefore, as Act I. I believe this choice shows ‘loyalty’ to the original text, whilst Zeffirelli’s generous allowance of bliss to his teenagers, almost until the final act, encapsulates this century’s more escapist positivist fantasy, and the comment of a middle-aged woman in Oxford (2010): “I didn’t realise they died at the end!” The Bazmark (+) becomes in this light a mockery of Zeffirellian positivism, a postmodernisation of his rococo-romance Italy, and a symbol of bathos for an amour that switches to a strain of minus almost as soon as it begins. Once you start looking for plusses and minuses in William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet they appear everywhere, but especially in the lift which Romeo and Juliet journey first up, then down within in order to kiss, and escape the Capulets. ‘I’m kissing you’ seems to me an apter way of expressing the kernel of Shakespeare’s tragedy than ‘A rose will bloom, it then will fade”. But then, Nino Rota’s plangent chords, washing over the 1968 blockbuster, are far more important than words are, generally, to Zeffirelli – indeed it has been said of ‘Shakespirelli’ that he “does everything possible to distract us from the words”. Which is ironic, because “the words” were what the supposed ‘original’ was all about.