Romeo and Juliet review – Zeffirelli's honey-drenched Shakespeare

It may look old-fashioned in places, but the Italian director’s lively version of Shakespeare, stuffed with beautiful actors, has elegance and charm

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie version of Romeo and Juliet is back on re-release; high-minded and lively, with heartbreakingly beautiful actors on show, and all shot in a kind of honeycomb-sunglow light. It does look a bit trad in some ways: there are old fashioned doublet-and-hose costumes (codpieces and all), lots of roistering laughter, stage school sword-fighting and some very literal line readings.

There’s also the syrupy Love theme, composed for the film, which later became notorious as the soppy-sad background music for Simon Bates’ Our Tune on Radio 1. But this is an attractive and spectacular piece of work, robustly using real outdoor locations and groundbreakingly casting young actors close to the characters’ supposed age. (When Ian McKellen and Francesca Annis starred in the RSC’s 1976 production, they were respectively 37 and 31.)

This film might actually be best known for featuring the exquisite young Bruce Robinson as Benvolio, who went on to write and direct Withnail and I and also to reveal that during this film he endured Uncle Monty-type attentions from Zeffirelli himself. Leonard Whiting (the Zac Efron of his day) plays Romeo and Olivia Hussey has an otherworldly purity as Juliet. John McEnery plays Mercutio and interestingly delivers the Queen Mab speech as a kind of despairing outburst. This has elegance, vigour and charm.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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