Romeo and Juliet

Director: Franco Zefferelli
Screenplay: Franco Brusati & Masolino D’Amico & Franco Zeffirelli (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Stars: Leonard Whiting (Romeo), Olivia Hussey (Juliet), John McEnery (Mercutio), Milo O’Shea (Friar Laurence), Pat Heywood (The Nurse), Robert Stephens (The Prince), Michael York (Tybalt), Bruce Robinson (Benvolio), Paul Hardwick (Lord Capulet), Natasha Parry (Lady Capulet), Antonio Pierfederici (Lord Montague), Esmeralda Ruspoli (Lady Montague)
MPAA Rating: GP
Year of Release: 1968
Country: U.K. / Italy
Romeo and Juliet Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Romeo and Juliet

It seems so natural and obvious now, but prior to Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s “pair of star-cross’d lovers” had been played almost exclusively by adults even though the Bard’s original text makes clear that Romeo is 16 and Juliet is 13. Although filmmakers had taken more than two dozen stabs at adapting the play over the previous seven decades, none had dared to take seriously the stated ages of the titular characters (although, to be fair, neither had most of the directors who staged it theatrically or the artists who painted scenes from it over the previous 370 years). George Cukor’s 1936 film version featured Leslie Howard (43 years old) and Norma Shearer (34 years old), while Renato Castellani’s 1954 version, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, was slightly more accurate with 26-year-old Laurence Harvey and 20-year old Susan Shentall.

Zefferelli, however, was much bolder in his casting. Contrary to most Shakespeare adaptations, he cast complete unknowns in the lead roles, which was partially a corrective to the approach he had taken with his first feature, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1966), which featured Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at the height of their stardom/notoriety, which made it more a film about them than anything. This time, Zefferelli went the opposite direction, choosing 17-year-old Leonard Whiting as Romeo and 15-year-old Olivia Hussey as Juliet, who fall in love against the backdrop of an ongoing feud between their respective families. Whiting had had a few small roles on television and in the Disney feature The Legend of Young Dick Turpin (1965); Hussey had similarly landed a few bit parts here and there, most notably in Delmer Davies’s final film, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965). Although largely untested, Whiting and Hussey looked the parts: they were young and attractive and brought natural vibrance and passion to the Bard’s dialogue that made it feel fresh. Zefferelli highlighted the play’s undeniable sexuality, but in a way that emphasizes the purity of first love (all the controversy over the film’s nudity misses its fundamental innocence). Whiting and Hussey have a powerful screen chemistry, and the way they exchange glances, especially when they first spy each other across the dance floor in the film’s most captivating sequence, is electric.

Outside of the casting, the approach Zefferelli took to Romeo and Juliet was similar to what he had done with The Taming of the Shrew, including the use of a rich musical score by Nino Rota and shooting on location and in color, the first time anyone had done so with a Shakespeare adaptation since Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944). In adapting the play, Zefferelli and his cowriters Franco Brusati and Masolino D’Amico cut about half of the dialogue, but they lost little of the essence of either the characters or the plot. All of the big scenes are largely intact, and the supporting characters are given plenty of room to develop, particularly John McEnery’s Mercutio and Pat Heywood’s Nurse, the latter of whom steals virtually every scene she is in. Zefferelli and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis, who won an Oscar for his work, give the film a sense of energy that, at the time, was not associated with Shakespeare films, which tended to be arty and staid. Although the film is largely classical in its style, it is enlivened with bursts of handheld camerawork and quick edits, especially in its two memorable fight sequences.

Zefferelli recognized that he was making a film about generational conflict at a time when generational conflict was a defining hallmark of the era. As critics then and since have pointed out, Romeo and Juliet, despite having been written in the 1570s, is in many ways the ultimate ’60s tale: Its story of passionate young people struggling to forge their own world of love and connection separate from the one defined by the ages-old conflicts of their elders is a quintessential counterculture fable. Zefferelli was smart enough not to try to cram in any references, however oblique, to the zeitgeist outside the film—this is, after all, still a story told with traditional Italian Renaissance settings and costumes—even as it helped propel Romeo and Juliet to significant commercial success, especially with young viewers who were equally smitten with the violent exploits of the Depression-era outlaws in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Shakespeare on film would never be the same.

Romeo and Juliet Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Excerpt from the 2018 documentary Franco Zeffirelli: Directing from Life
  • Interviews with actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting from 1967 and 2016
  • Trailer
  • Essay by scholar Ramona Wray
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 14, 2023

    Making its high-definition debut, Romeo and Juliet has been restored in 4K from the original 35mm Eastmancolor negative, with 35mm original separation masters being used to replace damaged sections. The result is the best I have ever seen the film look on home video, with Criterion’s Blu-ray offering a strong, filmlike presentation that leans toward a somewhat soft look that is clearly the intent. The opening credits sequence in misty Verona is pretty grainy, but it clears up substantially after that, with fine detail and excellent color saturation to show off the Oscar-winning costumes. The original monaural soundtrack is presented in a clean, clear Linear PCM track mastered from the 35mm original soundtrack negative and a 35mm magnetic track. The supplements aren’t too deep, but what is offered is worth your time. There is a five-minute excerpt from Chris Hunt’s 2018 documentary Franco Zeffirelli: Directing from Life that focuses on the production and reception of Romeo and Juliet and features then-new interviews with Zefferelli’s adopted son, his longtime secretary, and the film’s producer (Zefferelli appears in archival interviews, and at one point defends the controvesrsial nude scene). Actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting are featured in two interviews, one recorded in 1967 for the British Film Institute (17 min.) and another in 2016 following a screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California, moderated by Grant Moninger of the American Cinematheque, as part of Shakespeare Lives, a global celebration of the Bard on the 400th anniversary of his death (32 min.). There is also an original trailer and an essay by Ramona Wray, Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature at Queen’s University Belfast.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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