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Private Romeo (2011)
I have a couple of pet hates when it comes to Shakespeare: 1. Forced constructs (a lá Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It set in feudal Japan - WTF!?!) 2. Americans (I know it is harsh but I have yet to see an American production that I've not cringed at - Did you see Ethan Hawke in Hamlet?) And then along comes Private Romeo to force a group of American military cadets into Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare, forced context, Americans.
Shakespeare, forced military academy context, hot semi-naked Americans.
So I went. I was unprepared. The performances here completely disarmed me. The cast, led by (Seth Numrich - incidentally, Julliard's youngest ever drama student) is phenomenal. Their command of Shakespeare's words is masterful, finding the perfect balance between the flow of natural dialogue and the meter of the verse.
Hale Appleman is especially good as Mercutio, and he relishes the early scenes, absolutely smashing the Queen Mab speech. Chris Bresky, too, who takes on the nurse's role has a lot of fun with his role, aided by some clever set up. But, in truth, it is hard to fault anyone in the cast.
And the context? That's a bit more tricky.
The film kicks off with the students doing a read through of Romeo and Juliet in their class. Thankfully, Brown moves away from the standard 'lives mirror performance' format, as the cadets start to slip into verse with little warning. The military academy works as a setting because the action that is taking place isn't strictly 'Romeo and Juliet'. Shakespeare's dialogue is used to accentuate the action rather than drive it. It soon becomes clear that the masked ball is not going to be a masked ball and that daughters are not going to be girls. Importantly, there are no rival houses, they are mentioned but they are not the cause of the tragedy here, that role is taken up by the undercurrent of homophobia and standard high school pack mentality.
If you accept this construct then the world of Private Romeo maintains a concrete internal logic. The cadets can change roles because the speech is more important than the character. Director Alan Brown cleverly signals character changes by flashing back to the classroom scene, re-introducing the boys in the new role.
Coming to the film with a solid grasp of the play will certainly benefit. Brown has pared the play back to an extremely fast moving 98 minutes and he has used many techniques to keep the pace moving. Characters are excised or collapsed into single characters, actors double up on roles, and whole plot lines are removed or altered. This is nothing new in producing Shakespeare but it is certainly less common producing his works for the screen.
SPOILERS I won't deny that Brown has taken some liberties with the play. The tweaks that Baz Lurhmann made in his excellent 1996 version have been taken a step further here, with both the boys surviving. I didn't find this as jarring as I would have expected. Following on from Tybalt and Mercutio's fight (where neither die) the altered ending maintains the relationship between the traditional play and the play on the screen. Brown's decision also sidestepped the propensity of gays to die at the end of films, a comment in itself.
END SSPOILERS There are of course choices that didn't work especially well; a series of lip-synced YouTube videos filmed by the cadets were effective but oddly placed and a song by 'Juliet' over the films credits needs to be hacked off the end (and will be once it reaches my DVD-r).
Private Romeo is a fluid, astonishingly acted and relevant addition to the library of 'Romeo and Juliet' on film. Brown's film can sit proudly next to Zeffirelli and Lurhmann as an adaptation that has captured the true beauty of the text and adolescent love.
Do not miss!