It’s a shame, really.
Romeo & Juliet, which as you can probably guess is a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play about the doomed lovers and the warring families, is one of the best films that I’ve seen this year. Under normal circumstances, I would probably have it listed as the 2nd best film of the year so far, right underneath The Father. Unfortunately, Romeo & Juliet did not receive a theatrical release. Instead, in the United States, it was aired on PBS. Though it was submitted for Emmy consideration, it was unforgivably snubbed when the nominations were announced earlier today.
And that’s a shame because this film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet is one of the best that I’ve seen, one that celebrates the story’s theatrical origins while also working as a wonderful display of cinematic artistry.
The production was filmed over 17 days at London’s Royal National Theater. Because it was filmed at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, there’s no audience. Instead, the film opens with a small company of actors, all dressed in modern clothing, walking through the theater. Director Simon Godwin emphasizes the emptiness of the theater and the almost eerie silence as the actors take their seats around a table and start to recite their lines. We immediately recognize some members of the cast. Jessie Buckley plays Juliet while Josh O’Connor plays the role of Romeo. Adrian Lester is cast as the Prince while Tasmin Grieg plays Lady Capulet. As the actors recite their lines, they stand up and start to move around the theater and, before our eyes, they transform from being actors to being the characters from Shakespeare’s play. Suddenly, we’re no longer watching Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor. Instead, we’re watching Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet.
As the action moves to the stage, Simon Godwin continues to emphasize the eerie emptiness of the theater and the desolate look of the play’s ornate but still rather simple sets. Even with the presence of the actors, the streets of Verona still seem as deserted as the streets of London and every other major city were during the worst days of the pandemic. Watching the story unfold, it’s hard not to feel that Romeo and Juliet aren’t just rebelling against their warring families but they’re also rebelling against the sense of hopelessness that afflicted so many people in 2020. Romeo and Juliet’s refusal to surrender their love takes on an extra poignancy when filmed against the backdrop of the pandemic. At a time when many people were saying that civilization was collapsing and the world was on the verge of ending, Romeo and Juliet refuse to surrender their love. If their world is going to end, it’s going to end on their terms.
As opposed to other cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this version of Romeo and Juliet does not attempt to hide its theatrical origins. Instead, it embraces them, right down to the obviously fake moon that is lowered from the rafters whenever a scene takes place at night. And yet, the actors give such good performances and Simon Godwin directs with such confidence and skill that the viewer still gets wrapped up in the story. Like all good works of theater, Romeo & Juliet succeeded in convincing the viewer of two contradictory things, that they’re both watching a production in a London theater and that they’re watching the Capulets and the Montagues as they walk through the deserted streets of Verona. This production of Romeo & Juliet is one that celebrate both the power of the stage and the power of cinema. Perhaps most importantly, it celebrates the power of Shakespeare’s classic tale, with the mix of the actor’s modern costuming and Shakespeare’s Elizabethan language reminding us that great art is universal and timeless.
Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor both give compelling performances as the film’s doomed lovers, with Buckley bringing a good deal of inner strength to the role of Juliet while O’Connor wisely underplays the scenes that would tempt a lesser Romeo to go overboard. As opposed to what we often see in lesser productions of this play, Buckley’s Juliet is never foolishly naïve and O’Connor’s Romeo never surrenders to shrill self-pity. Instead, they’re two lovers who know what they’re getting into but who are still willing to take the risk, even at the most bleak of times. When Buckley and O’Connor first show up in the film, walking through that empty theater, they look like themselves, two talented performers in their early 30s. But, as they perform their roles, they transform before our eyes into Romeo and Juliet and it’s thrilling to watch.
One has to applaud the National Theatre for filming this production. One also has to applaud PBS for airing it in the States. But still, how I wish Romeo & Juliet had been given a theatrical release or, at the very least, a Netflix or Prime release! This is a production that I wish more people had seen, a great work of theater, film, and art.