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The definitive cinematic Romeo & Juliet
on 8 February 2003
Appropriately enough, Zeffirelli's masterful production had its cinematic debut in the "Summer of Love". It is certainly an authentic reflection of the youthful exuberance and vigour of its era. Yet it also succeeds brilliantly in capturing the colour and atmosphere of the Renaissance in Italy. It was filmed on location in Tuscany and Umbria and many of its scenes are so gorgeous as to seem almost like canvases by Raphael or Titian, magically brought to life. The music is also outstandingly fine and has now achieved a wide level of circulation beyond the film as a quintessential love theme.
Zeffirelli's decision to cast the leads at their correct ages has been controversial. Certainly, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey (who were respectively 17 and 15 during filming) do not give performances of technical theatrical brilliance (for that in a Shakespearian lead, you should see Kenneth Brannagh's Henry V). Nevertheless the leads are utterly charming, convincingly passionate, genuinely moving and wholly credible and I would suggest that these attributes are far more essential than technical mastery in the context of this particular play.
In the supporting roles, which are superbly cast, there are many performances of great theatrical accomplishment. Performances of memorable flare are turned in by Pat Heywood as the nurse, Milo O'Shea as Friar Laurence, John McEnery as Mercutio and Michael York as a surprisingly fearsome Tybalt.
It is the greatest tribute to this film, as I know from personal experience, that it has the power to turn intelligent teenage detractors of the Bard into his keenest advocates.
This is undoubtedly the definitive cinematic version of Shakespeare's second greatest work. Beware of pale imitations!