Every generation, it seems, gets their own Romeo and Juliet
. For my grandparents, Norma Shearer played Juliet to Leslie Howard’s Romeo. Both of them were well into their thirties and a tad old for adolescent love. For my parents, whose definitive cinema version had to be Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant West Side Story
(screenplay and lyrics by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim), a young Judy Dench would forever be “their” stage Juliet. Miss Dench, who played opposite John Stride at the Old Vic, was twenty-four at the time, a decade younger than Norma Shearer and thus considered a bit green to take on a Shakespearean lead. She silenced all her critics and has been their darling ever since.
Franco Zeffirelli, who would take his interpretation to the screen six years later, directed this highly successful production. However, in keeping with the sixties worship of all things bright and beautiful, and realizing that cinema did not require the kind of mature vocal projection so essential to good theatre, Mr Zefferilli chose a decidedly younger pair of star-crossed lovers for his film. Olivia Hussey played an enchanting and courageous Juliet to the broody, bardic Leonhard Whiting. Miss Hussey turned 17 on set. This made her the closest yet in age to Shakespeare’s original Juliette Capulet, who had counted but thirteen summers when she met her Romeo. I was the same age as Miss Hussey and she turned my knees to jelly. I can remember hoping that Mr Whiting would fall under a bus. Recently I watched the film again and found it very charming, beautifully acted but rather lacking in zing. Either one cannot step into the same river twice, or this must be due to the influence of generation X’s very own Romeo and Juliet
, my all-time favourite.
Baz Luhrmanns 1996 controversial, love-it-or-hate-it extravaganza of violence, daring choreography, cross-dressing, disco mayhem and pistol play was everything the nineties needed. There were clouds of dust, fast cars, burning petrol stations and a sense of melancholy so oppressive and pervasive, despite the upbeat machismo of all the main actors, that if Kurt Cobain had not put a gun to his head two years previously, he certainly would have done so after seeing it! There are not many films whose soundtrack alone has me in tears. There are not many Romeos & Juliets of whom I can honestly say I could kiss either of them with equal passion. For there are not many films whose protagonists seem to fall from the outermost rim of the world into each other’s arms, who sizzle like isotopes in one another’s presence, who crackle with static even when she’s in fair Verona Beach and he’s banished to Mantua. Leonardo DiCaprio shows himself worthy of all the hype, while a radiant Clare Danes, also just seventeen, nails Juliet with the most flirtatious, vexing and capriciously tragic version to reach celluloid. And no one, but no one does Tybalt like John Leguizamo or Mercucio like Harold Perrineau.
Luhmann was cudgelled for taking major liberties with the play. Some said he’d shredded it, although in truth he only pruned it back, the privilege of any director, for even in the theatre significant cuts are usually made. But what those curmudgeons and purists maybe failed to notice was just how much of the text was deftly reinserted as press cuttings, packages and labels, billboards and hoardings, even engraved into the very stocks and barrels of “the boyz” deadly hardware. I’ve watched this film a dozen times and every time I notice something new. My most recent epiphany being Friar Lawrence, through whose fumbling agency and love of complex solutions all is lost and upon whom the postal system plays such an unfortunate trick. He’s acted by Pete Postlethwaite … Post Let Wait.
Now there’s a new Romeo and Juliet
for the Twilight
generation. All I needed to see was the trailer to discover that it is vacuous, maudlin, pretentious and modestly acted. Set the two trailers up end to end (as one can on YouTube), and you’ll see what I mean. So what’s gone wrong? Well, the first thing to go wrong is that whatever content emerges through the turgid acting and the needless additional dialogue (“Juliet is a Capulet! The Montagues and Capulets are mortal enemies” ... oh, right, thanks for explaining that) has been trumped with way too much style. You do this with Shakespeare at your peril. Baz Luhmann, a shameless purveyor of style over content in subsequent films, cannily got it just right. He realized that if you’re going to amp up the pizzazz you have to amp up the jazz, too. He takes the bard by the scruff of the neck and shakes him. Everyone plays to the very edge of histrionic, as if their lives depended on it, which in Luhrmann’s world of rival Mafia clans they probably did. Di Caprio is on his knees in the pouring rain on a street that runs with blood when he screams that he is fortune’s fool and Mercucio calls down a plague on both your houses as one would call fire from heaven.
Everything in this new version is richly embroidered, gleaming and bejewelled (Zwarovski are one of the films biggest bankers and they insist that it expresses their values) but that is about all that truly shines. Douglas Booth as Romeo looks disconcertingly like Keira Knightly. But although he has the pout, he lacks the smoulder. And critics have been particularly hard on Hailee Steinfeld, at fourteen the most age-appropriate (um, maybe not) Juliet ever. They insist that she lacks the maturity necessary to play Shakespeare, even if she totally looks the part: dark and sweet and scrumptious, not rising to her lines, but rather tending to mumble. Personally, having seen her utterly brilliant and stoic in True Grit
, I’m sure this is not her fault, but rather down to bad prepping, a bowdlerized text full of “romantic” additions and poor acting direction from Carlo Carlei, who seems more concerned with getting his film to look like Game of Thrones
than with getting his cast to tell a story. I’ve worked with very young actors and you have to sweat blood for every ounce of flesh that they give you. But they will give, if and when they are properly ridden in. No actor is too young to play well. But as a director you must be ready to lead them to some very uncomfortable places until they discover the source from whence their true feelings emerge. Nonetheless, and despite the hammering it has taken, I will probably go and see this version, if only to honour Miss Steinfeld, not with a “could do better” but with a “will do better”.
The sad thing is that since Juliet Capulet first cut her dead Romeo into little pieces to seed the night sky with him, we have so far turned away from the garish day as to mistake Swarovski crystals for stars. Meanwhile, real stars, not those in Hollywood, are still careening across the universe at ever more giddying speeds away from us and from one another. Except where black holes are involved. That’s when the careening goes into reverse and some gargantuan swallowing, a la Queen Mab on steroids, takes place. Apparently we are about to witness the fireworks caused when a giant gas cloud gets eaten by a black hole that happens to be quite close to us … actually about as close as the Falkland Islands on a cosmic scale of 1:100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometres … so definitely part of our neighbourhood, though you wouldn’t want to pop round there on your bike for a closer look without taking some sandwiches and a thermos.
Like everything that happens in space, we’re the last to know. We are so much in the provinces out here that there is hardly an event we can observe (like this one) which has not already happened many hundreds of billions of years ago. So we don’t even need to get excited about whether or not this hole might grow so mighty after swallowing so many cubic eons of hydrogen as to come and eat us too, because it hasn’t. The event was over billions of years before our planet was even formed. We’re still here and my great nieces will still have a chance to see their own version of Romeo and Juliet
as soon as they’re old enough.
But how can a love affair between a Montague and a Capulet be important in the face of the utter indifference of a universe so vast that you can spend your entire week writing zeros and still not have enough to express the number of miles between us and the far edge of the Virgo cluster, the super-galactic group to which our Milky Way and Andromeda and the entire Messner 69 Sagittarius huddle (which contains the last two) belong, along with zillions of other galaxies? And the Virgo cluster is itself just a speck in the sky. Stick a pin into the night and you are touching history so distant that the entire existence of the human race is not even the thickness of the varnish on the end of the two-metre measuring stick of time, not even the width of a single atom, one of very many making up a single molecule of that complex, shiny coating.
Yet space is not so vast, nor so ancient as to have grown beyond the scope of intelligence. Even if we must wait many more centuries or even millennia for the dawning of reason sufficient to comprehend it, it shall be comprehended. And on that day and that day only will we no longer have need of this wooden “O” to inform and persuade and teach and nurture. And only then shall we cease to be fortune’s fools.
© Edwin Drood
, January 2014
Detail of Juliet
, coloured lithograph of a painting by Philip Hermogenes Calderon RA (1833-1898),
published in The Graphic
, London, 1888.