Shakespeare and cinema

Which is the best screen version of Romeo and Juliet? Don’t look at Luhrmann or Bhansali

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation comes closest to the youthful spirit and tragedy of William Shakepeare’s iconic play.

In 1993, international headlines declared Bosko Brckic and Admira Ismic the Romeo and Juliet of their times. He was a Serb and she was a Muslim. Both were in their twenties. As they tried to escape the multiethnic disintegration in Yugoslavia, they fell to snipers bullets on a bridge in Sarajevo. They died in each other’s arms.

Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo (National Film Board of Canada, 1994) is a profoundly moving documentary of Bosko and Admira – a collage of news footage, photographs, interviews with friends and memories of never warring but now grieving parents. Poignantly, the film ends with William Shakespeare’s words narrated in a voice over:

Some shall be pardoned, and some punishe’d;

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Whether in life or art, Romeo and Juliet are typical sobriquets for young lovers who defy the social order. They rise above prejudice and challenge destiny, but their “violent delights have violent ends”. Literary critics ponder whether Romeo and Juliet qualifies as melodrama or great tragedy (according to Milton, the ultimate effect of great tragedy is “calm of mind, all passion spent”), but a student of Shakespeare may wonder whether inspired screen adaptations are in fact, kiss offs to the Bard.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s resplendent but meandering Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013) diffuses the impact of the 96 hours that Shakespeare’s young lovers hurtle through. The subterranean “ancient grudge” of warring families in this case is entirely obvious and orchestrated by the feudal Ursula-like matriarch (Supriya Pathak) who stands between a not so little mermaid Leela (Deepika Padukone) and her well over-teen lover, the super-sexy, smart Aleck Ram (Ranveer Singh). Leela suffers a punishment all too similar to Ada in Jane Campion’s The Piano. Amidst guns, dances and peacock feathers, Ram rises to become a don. Grand castles are crashed before Love makes its final splash. Definitely a kiss off, this is the story of Ram and Leela, not Romeo and Juliet.

‘Ang Laga De’ from ‘Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela’.

Gangs of Jets (Americans) and Sharks (Puerto Ricans) click their fingers to spark the energy in Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story. By no means “alike in dignity” the Jets and the Sharks are equally matched in agility. The superb set design and choreography chalk out a tale of territorial conflict in basketball courts, stores and alleys. Ganglords Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and Bernardo (George Chakiris) provide the surface tension, but a sinister undertow of ethnic cleansing lurks beneath. The heart of the story beats in a six minute song, “Life is alright in America/ If you’re all white in America.” More overshadowed than “star-crossed,” Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) play out the sad story of young(ish) lovers.

‘West Side Story’.

Youth, or the appearance of it, arrives in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. “The traffic of our stage” blasts in high octane from the opening sequence, in which the prologue of the play is slickly transformed into images turning “civil hands unclean”. From gas stations to city streets and sandy beaches, a wild, dystopian vision of postmodern culture swings in deafening overdrive. It is only at the end, in glittering candlelit church precincts, that love and death receive their privacy and well-deserved grace. We are subliminally reminded of the inspirational source through a kind of patter, but the film is keen on visual and sometimes illogical overload. The cast suggests a multiethnic demographic, but teasingly enough, enmity is not on racial lines. An MTV effect creates caricatures of the secondary characters (especially Mercutio and the Capulet parents) making it convenient to take sides. For all the tawdry turns of his potboiler text, Shakespeare could not have imagined this one.

‘Romeo + Juliet’.

In 1968, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet starring real teenagers (the radiant Olivia Hussey and the clear-eyed Leonard Whiting ) wooed and won audiences worldwide. Abandoning all artifice, Liv and Len have a natural beauty about them and bring a vulnerability to the dreamy and ultimately damned innocents whom they portray. The camera lingers lovingly on them in a soft light, but it also snaps up the joi de vivre of the masquerade ball and deftly captures duels fought both in camaraderie and bitterness. The costumes, right down to the codpiece, make for the credible look of civilians in 15th century Italy and the music, though occasionally a little syrupy, is not out of time or place. Supporting characters Mercutio (John McEnry) and Benvolio (Bruce Robinson) are memorably portrayed. So is Nurse (Pat Heywood), who is as loud as she is lewd.

Zeffirelli’s film is not a kiss off. It does not clutch at strands of Shakespeare’s play. Instead, there is the full weave of themes– public and private, fate and free will, light and darkness. Almost 50 years later, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey stand unrivalled as the Romeo and Juliet of world cinema.

‘Romeo and Juliet’.
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