Watch the official trailer for Julian Fellowes’ Romeo & Juliet:
If you were writing a film script for Romeo and Juliet there would be a great number of things you would have to consider and there would be some things you should never do. You should not write additional scenes. If you do you should not under any circumstances invent new dialogue for your characters: it is bound to look silly beside Shakespeare’s. You may cut Shakespeare’s text, however, provided you maintained the play’s overall balance.
A Shakespeare play is complex: it is never about one thing; it always has several interconnecting themes, ideas and lines of action. So when you are shortening the text to make it a reasonable length for a film be careful that you don’t lose any of those themes and lines of action. Make sure that you just trim the text so that the balance is maintained. If you are a very bad writer with little understanding of a Shakespeare text, who has somehow found him/herself commissioned to write a film script for Romeo and Juliet you are in deep trouble, particularly if you regard yourself as a good writer.
The latest film version of Romeo and Juliet, released in October 2013 was written by a British Conservative politician, Julian Fellowes – author of the popular British drama series, Downton Abbey, and also of the film Titanic. Titanic is an uninteresting Hollywood formula disaster film and Downton Abbey is a pale copy of a successful 1970s television series, Upstairs Downstairs, with the usual clichés – the daughter running off with the chauffeur, the Duke with an American wife, the fat, widowed cook, the very powerful butler and a villain among the lesser menservants. Although it was very popular for the first two seasons, it was less popular for the third and viewers dropped off like lemmings for the fourth and, we all hope, last.
I hasten to suggest that the extreme dullness of this Romeo and Juliet is not entirely Fellowes’ fault. Every member of the creative team has to bear some responsibility for that, although one can sympathise, given that they had a fourth-rate script to work with. But there are also things that are not Julian Fellowes’ fault, such as that the actor cast as Benvolio, the wise cousin/advisor to Romeo, is all of twelve years old.
As I watched I felt sorry for the actors, who never have a chance to develop anything. Having said that, Damian Lewis as Capulet manages to shine through the dullness. I am a great fan of Lesley Manville who is always outstanding but I felt particularly sorry for her, playing the nurse, whose role was almost entirely cut, and where it was not, we had Julian Fellowes instead of Shakespeare.
What happened to the feud – the divided society – brilliantly realised at the start of Shakespeare’s text, with servants of the two houses playfully squaring up to each other before the intervention of youths of the houses cranks it up into a violent confrontation? Although it is the lump of clay that Shakespeare throws down to sculpt into a play it isn’t there in this film. What about the drama’s turning point from comedy to tragedy with Mercutio’s death? A non event.
When Julian Fellowes scraps Shakespeare’s lines and inserts his own instead we have things like Juliet saying ‘I’m warming to that.’
On the whole, with the cardboard sets and stiff movements of the young actors it looks like one of those films made by the production teams of education resources companies which were shown in classrooms as audio visual aids before Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet hit the screens, electrified audiences, and changed our vision of the play.
Zeffirelli’s film is a beautiful, careful transposition of the play to the screen. The script was written by another Italian, Franco Brusati, who had the good sense to trust Shakespeare and not think he was the better writer. The opening scene is a classic and the death of Mercutio an eye opener, now regarded as the only way it could be done. All that in the language of Shakespeare, trimmed to fit the cinema’s timescale.
The nurse’s performance is most memorable, with Zeffirelli taking the time to show the high jinks of the young people of Verona and the atmosphere of fun before everything turns sour. The scene where the nurse returns from her meeting with Romeo to tell Juliet that they are to be married is a masterpiece of performance on the part of both actors, and Brusati and Zeffirelli show it in full. It hardly exists in Julian Fellowes’ version.
Juliet is arguably Shakespeare’s strongest, most passionate female character. In this version the actor simply recites the lines, and Juliet’s most passionate speeches are not there at all. The scene where she shows superhuman courage by taking the potion that will put her into a death-like sleep has been entirely cut. And Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is unforgettable: she is beautiful, exciting and passionate. No male, in seeing the film could fail to fall in love with her.
Nino Rota’s soundtrack for the Zeffirelli film is superb, its main theme having become one of the most played pieces on instrumental classical radio stations. It is reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde love death theme: it is exquisite, rising and falling with a haunting, tragic feeling. The 2013 film’s soundtrack is written by a young musician, Zola Jesus, who appears from her many awards to be very successful in American popular music circles, but her music for this film is bland and neither says anything nor invokes any feeling.
I suggest that if you want to enter Shakespeare’s great play of teenage sexuality and tragic love through film you should watch Zeffirelli’s film. You will also get something out of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, which made a star of Leonardo DiCaprio. Here again, the text is seriously curtailed, but in a balanced way. The social divide is brilliantly portrayed with exciting gang wars, and all in all. it’s great entertainment. If you see the 2013 film without knowing the play you will think Romeo and Juliet is about nothing more than two rather shallow and stupid teenagers who, far from being passionately and desperately in love, hardly notice each other.