Romeo & Juliet is arguably the classic romantic story of all time. Read reviews of Zeffirelli’s 1968 and Luhrmann’s 1996 movie versions of Romeo & Juliet below.

Romeo & Juliet Movie 1968: Franco Zeffirelli

Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juilet won Acadamy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design; it was also nominated for Best Director and Best Picture.  When it first came out it was a revelation. School students were able to identify more fully with the play and its characters than ever before.

For the first time the ‘star crossed’ lovers were genuine teenagers. They were selected by Zeffirelli, not for their proven acting ability but swept out of their schools because he thought they looked right for the roles as he envisioned them. He taught them to act. The result was the intensely teenage emotional experience that Shakespeare intended.  There was so much new about this treatment of a Shakespeare play. The centre of Verona, a market place, presented as a vivid, colourful, detailed slice of everyday Renaissance life; the teenage impetuosity, its youthful banter and play always threatening and easily turned to violence; two teenagers in bed in a post sexual stupor.

The beauty of the two lovers is striking and emphasises the tragedy of young love gone so badly wrong. Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is a stunning performance from such a young actor. If there is any doubt about Shakespeare’s creation of the extrordinary strength and determination a thirteen year old girl is capable of that doubt would be expelled by Hussey’s performance. The violent encounter with her father, the resolution of carrying the implications of her love to its conclusion, the courage with which she faces Friar Laurence’s plan are all carried out with conviction.

The movie is set in Italyand that would immediately have alerted his audience to the coming violence. It was a place that the Elizabethan mind associated with feuds, vendettas, murder and heat. The play is full of references to heat and the effect it has on people, making them volatile, impatient and impetuous. Zeffirelli demonstrates that heat throughout. The characters are seen trying hard to avoid confrontations, controlling their natural tendencies, made hard by the heat. The fight scene takes place around a fountain, where Mercutio plays in the water while bantering with Tybalt. It is one of the most famous scenes in Shakespeare movies and the tension between the heat and the need to keep the peace is masterfully done. The inevitability of the violence, the action that is the turning point where comedy is transformed to tragedy is apparent throughout the comic antics of the characters.  This movie is the ideal way for a newcomer to come to Shakespeare and it is not surprising that teachers everywhere keep a copy of it in their resource cupboards.

Romeo & Juliet Movie 1996: Baz Luhrmann

Although Lurmann’s 1996 Romeo & Juliet is the familiar timeless story of the ‘star crossed’ lovers it’s updated to a modern Veronese suburb – Verona Beach – where the teenage members of the Montague and Capulet families carry guns, and when the trouble starts they shoot at each other without restraint. The film retains the original Shakespeare dialogue but the text is pruned and the story is told mainly through vivid and exciting cinematic images.

Shakespeare’s plays have a timeless quality and have been comfortably interpreted by four hundred years of producers and actors to present them as relevant to their time and the fashions of the time. This film loses nothing of the play’s integrity while catering for the modern teenager’s taste for fast moving, spectacular visual and musical effects. The music is loud and the camerawork offers what the most popular action thrillers do, driving the audience through the story, hurtling the ill-fated lovers towards their doom.

Luhrmann has created a world in which the extreme wealth of the two families is evident in the pastimes, dress and lifestyle of their younger generation. They wear expensive outfits, drive fancy sports cars and wield big shiny guns. The fight at the beginning of the play becomes a spectacular gunfight at a petrol station and the party at the Capulet mansion is a sumptuous rock-star style bash. Deafening pop music plays throughout.

The difficulty Luhrmann has to confront is the need to marry his cinematic vision with the language of Shakespeare, and he does this admirably. The key is the convincing way in which the actors speak the lines. Shakespeare’s blank verse iambic pentameter was written as a way of imitating the rhythms of natural speech and all of the actors expoit that quality in the poetry to create that effect. DiCaprio, who has gone on to become a major film star, shows that early promise in this movie. He has an instinctive grace and creates a Romeo whose gut-wrenching emotion is entirely convincing. Danes’s yearning Juliet is exactly right for a strong determined young girl caught up in this powerful emotional swirl. Paul Sorvino as Capulet presents a convincing modern tycoon who can’t understand any form of dissent from his authority and Pete Postlethwaite’s hippy guru, Friar Laurence, is a joy.

Anyone coming to Shakespeare for the first time will enjoy this film but there is an extra dimension of enjoyment for those who know the play. Some of the character motivations are obscured by Luhrmann’s desire to realise his cinematic vision but knowledge of the play would make everything clear. This movie is a rich addition to the canon of Romeo & Juliet films.


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