For the second consecutive year, a Shakespeare pic, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, has received the nod
for the Royal Film Gala. But last time, with “Taming of the Shrew,” he had Richard Burton and Elizabeth
Taylor as his trump cards. This time, his calculated risk in starring two virtual unknowns, has misfired and the film suffers accordingly.
British censors having lagged it with an “A” certificate will cut on audience potential, for youngsters under 16 cannot see it without being accompanied by an adult. Title and theme should draw plenty into discriminating houses.
(Paramount will not release film in U.S. until October. Meanwhile, Zeffirelli will re-cut, probably shorten by 12 minutes. It is also expected that voice track will be much improved. Par was locked-in to the Royal date and print was hurried — Ed.)
Shot entirely in Italy, director Franco Zeffirelli has conjured up a very good eyeful, with splendid use of color in costumes and backgrounds, the splashing reds, oranges, rich browns and greens contrasting well with the chaste blacks and whites and pastel shades used in some of the more intimate and dramatic scenes. Street and fight sequences give film plenty of movement, allied with bold effective cuts in the Bard’s text. Zeffirelli has tried, and often succeeds, in giving the film an up-to-date feeling. Thus the wedding night scene shows Romeo completely nude and Juliet skimply draped, a concession to the modern screen trend. The street quarrels are also lively, but sometimes have the effect of the kind of punch-ups all too frequent in routine TV series.
Basically, Shakespeare’s tragedy is about people, their thoughts, their emotions, their relationships to each other, and due to the inexperience of the two young stars, this is often painfully missing. Olivia Hussey has made a school-girl appearance in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and Leonard Whiting has had a spell as the Artful Dodger in “Oliver.” But neither has the experience, looks or vital personality to rise to the pinnacles of the star-cross’d lovers. It is not their fault. It is Zeffirelli’s typical quest of a coup de theatre. Hence dramatic highlights are stilted and much of the verse flat to the ear.
Rarely will audiences be moved to throat-gulping by the plight of the young couple. For all Hussey’s prettiness and Whiting’s shy charm it is clear that they do not understand one tenth of the meaning of their lines and it is a drawback from which the film cannot recover. The young leads are surrounded by some excellent pro performers, which helps them, but also shows up their inadequacies.
Milo O’Shea is a witty and kindly Friar Laurence and Pat Heywood, though her dialog has been somewhat
detergentised, has a good down-to-earth robustness allied to moments of tenderness. Robert Stephens
brings the authority of his Shakespearean experience nobly to the role of the Prince of Verona and Natasha Perry, Michael York, Paul Hardwick, Antonio Pierfederici, Roberto Bisacco and Esmeralda Ruspoli give the production some needed professionalism. A comparative newcomer, John McEnery plays Mercutio with strength and swagger. With features and style cast in the Richard Harris mould, McEnery (brother to Peter McEnery) looks a most promising bet for the future. Most of the rest of the cast consist of sound Italian thesps.
Production credits all stand up. Pasquale de Santis’s Technicolor lensing caresses the scene and Luciano Puccini’s artwork, Danilo Donati’s swaggering costumes and Christine Edard’s sets provide the director with top technical aid. One of the several delights in the film is the melodious but unobtrusive music of Nina Rota. Reginald Mills has edited down 152 minutes and could probably not have spared much more
clipping to retain effectiveness in the film’s flow.
That “Romeo and Juliet” is a distinct disappointment is because few of the young lovers’ speeches ever
rise to the poignancy or wonder of young love demanded by the playwright and because Whiting, particularly, lacks presence as Romeo. When among his street friends this is really nothing to single him out as the male lead.