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And almost 50 years on, it retains the magic.

400 years after his death, William Shakespeare’s legacy continues to attract all manner of theatre and film directors, with varying results. Shakespeare Lives, a worldwide season of events to mark the occasion, has formed the basis for a season of presentations through the British Council and British Film Institute, in association with Park Circus and Film London.

Park Circus have been the prime distributor of old film works, notably the James Bond season to mark the Centenary of Cubby Broccoli’s birth, and numerous other old titles. In this context, they are re-releasing a brand new 4K Digital Restoration of the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which has been restored by the Paramount Pictures Archive.

If, like me, you haven’t seen this version and are more au fait with Baz Luhrmann’s updated version which starred Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes, then be prepared for a more classical and traditional film, which in some ways is what plays the text to its greatest strength. The recent big-screen version of Macbeth, which starred Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, whilst very stylish in look and atmospheric in cinematographic terms, suffered from compromising a three-hour plus play into a two-hour film version. However, Kenneth Branagh’s 70mm version of Hamlet in 1996 fulfilled the intentions of the work on all fronts, whilst presenting a very cinematic presentation through an all-star cast.

The plot has been played out umpteen times in a number of films, plays and TV shows, notably West Side Story, Robert Wise’s Oscar-winning adaptation of the Leonard Bernstein musical which won 10 Academy Awards, and of course Titanic, James Cameron’s blockbuster which transposed the Romeo and Juliet characters into a love story set on the doomed 1912 liner. The theme music by Nino Rota, who later composed the classic music for The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, was played every day around 11am on Simon Bates’ Our Tune slot on Radio One during his tenure on the prime-time morning slot between 9.30 and 12.30 on weekdays.

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In fair Verona, two warring families, the Montagues and the Capulets, have a long standing feud and from the outset, the film reveals their resentment and deep-filled hatred of one another. Tybalt, a Capulet (played with simmering charisma by a youthful Michael York) has it in for the enemy and isn’t helped by the arrival at a masque held by his family of Romeo (Leonard Whiting), heir to the Montague house, who falls quickly in love with Juliet (Olivia Hussey). Cue much denial to their respective families, meetings in secret and emotional conflict that threatens to undermine not just the bond between Romeo and Juliet, but the city of Verona itself….

Romeo and Juliet remains the definitive film version of the classic play, helped along by the perfect casting of Whiting and Hussey (who later appeared in Zeffirelli’s TV epic Jesus of Nazareth), who encapsulate the emotional and heart-breaking desires that both feel towards one another. York is excellent as Tybalt, particularly during a fight with Mercutio (John McEnery). There’s good support also from Robert Stephens (father of Toby Die Another Day Stephens) as the prince and Pat Heywood as the nurse.

Production-wise, the art direction, cinematography, editing and costume design by Danilo Donati (who later created the costumes on the 1980 cult classic Flash Gordon) are faultless, and the location shooting adds to the wonderment that this film creates. If you are a drama or English teacher looking for a good point of reference for your students, then please do check out this adaptation to reap the benefits of your tutelage. Highly recommended after 50 years.

Romeo and Juliet is re-released in select cinemas on May 20.

John Higgins

John Higgins is an ongoing Contributing Writer for Film and TV Now, an online Film website, writing reviews and articles. He is also a qualified scriptwriter, having graduated from Euroscript in 2012, and is a member of the BKSTS. In April 2016, he completed an Intensive course in Cinematography with the London Film Academy and is now looking to collaborate on future projects. He also has his own Facebook page: John Higgins - Film Review, which he launched in 2015 - 16.

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Posted on May 13, 2016

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