Much to Do With Hate, But More With Love

A Review of the 2013 Romeo & Juliet Movie

I’ve seen many renditions of Romeo & Juliet: on-stage and on-screen. I saw Zeffirelli’s film version in my college Shakespeare class, and I saw the beginning of the 1996 version, Romeo + Juliet (That was as far as I could get; it was way too modernized for my taste). My favorite of all of them, so far, was the 2013 version, adapted by Julian Fellowes (recently renowned for writing Downton Abbey).

I admit, it doesn’t stick to the script. There are new lines, new scenes, and much editing. All the lines containing sexual innuendos were stripped from the production, and a proverb Shakespeare didn’t write was inserted at one point (he was not the one who gave us “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”), but I enjoyed it, and Romeo & Juliet is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, so I am quite familiar with what the characters are supposed to say.

Some complain about the lack of passion shown by the main characters, but I think they forget that the couple is young; they’re basically teenagers. I’d be disturbed, not pleased, if they showed the passion of mature adults. They love each other, and they want to be together, but they are young lovers, and that’s the point of the play—they’re young, innocent, and impetuous, and they let their love carry them to extremes. During Shakespeare’s time, falling in love was likened to a disease, an imbalance of the humors—not something that was sought after or lauded—and the play explores the emotion, its good and bad side, as experienced by two very inexperienced people.

I’m not a big fan of Zeffirelli’s version: I felt that one was heavy-handed in symbolism and sentiment, and my guess is that those who like that version won’t enjoy this one. However, I felt this production improved the story in three areas: tact, speed, and focus.

The play is notoriously problematic in the area of tact. How much should one show of these legendary lovers, particularly when the script includes their wedding night? Zeffirelli’s choices in that department were far from satisfactory, to me at least, and I feel this version lets us enjoy their love story without too much voyeurism. (If they were trying to create something that teachers can use to introduce kids to Shakespeare, I think they succeeded. Other than the few times when someone dies by the sword, the movie was pleasantly innocent and youthful, like its main characters.)

And it was fast. Through their editing choices, I felt the director captured the speed with which Romeo and Juliet fall in love. Unlike in the play, we actually get to meet Romeo’s first love, Rosaline, in the movie; we see her being thrown over for Juliet at the party, and the following morning, we see him married to his new love. In the play, there are so many scenes between the events that I think our experience is cushioned, our senses unaware of just how fast these two are moving, and I think the movie did a great job capturing that speed.

And finally, it was focused. There was no distracting love theme that swept you off your feet (Nino Rota wrote the theme for Zeffirelli’s, which was turned into a pop hit by Henry Mancini in the late ‘60s). The music was pretty, but subtle, supporting the main story…just like the other characters. The changes to the roles of the nurse, Mercutio, Benvolio, and other main characters all served to leave the emphasis on Romeo and Juliet. It involved cutting lines, trimming whole scenes, but it kept your focus on the couple and how quickly they were making decisions, how fast their lives were being changed.

And now, for my few complaints. They did cut some of my favorite lines and scenes: Juliet’s soliloquy before she takes the poison, her grieving Tybalt only to wonder if Romeo, too, is dead, and the rest of Juliet’s line about how Romeo would still be Romeo “were he not Romeo called.” Benvolio felt way too young to be spouting such wisdom as he does, and the joust at the very beginning felt unnecessary. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the new Tybalt scene: is he in love with Juliet, too, or is he just protective and vengeful? And, like every stage production I’ve scene, we lost the ending where the fathers are trying to outdo each other in praising and honoring their son and daughter-in-law.

But I expected there to be things I didn’t enjoy. In films and even on stage, plays never appear exactly as they do on the page. I enjoyed their rendition of the scene where Tybalt is forcibly seated by Lord Capulet, their handling of the “dear saint” scene, the camaraderie between Romeo and Mercutio and the historical accuracy of the balcony scene (although I always pictured the garden with more trees, they wouldn’t have had them; that wasn’t how gardens in a city were made back then). Overall, I felt they did a much better job than most of the other productions I’ve seen, and I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy Romeo & Juliet—not to those fans who only enjoy the beauty of its lines and the “passion” of its romance, but those who enjoy the story itself.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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