Read a review and overview of Franco Zeffirelli’s classic Romeo and Juliet 1968.
Romeo and Juliet is arguably the classic romantic story of all time, so it’s little wonder that Shakespeare’s play has been reproduced on the silver screen so many times. In 1968 Franco Zeffirelli’s version was released to great critical acclaim, receiving nominations for – and winning – a host of awards around the world.
Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet 1968 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 extraordinary 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 Italy and 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 into 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.
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