I think any William Shakespeare movie is worth watching as long as you can hear the dialogue, and handy proof is provided by Alan Brown’s Private Romeo, a curious, committed, romantic, low-budget bit of queer festival fodder. Shot in a high school doubling as an academy for military cadets, the cast of eight enact Romeo and Juliet. It’s more than a project, since they’re living it out in their daily locations, sometimes lapsing from Shakespeare’s dialogue in an attempt to clarify one or two points “realistically”.
Frankly, it never works. You’ll find reviewers who think otherwise, and perhaps I take language more literally than some, but all the references to “Juliet”, “daughter”, “nurse”, “madam” etc. keep reminding me of that, never mind the whole scene where Juliet’s parents tell her she’s going to marry Paris. (It might have been more reasonable if two of the cadets had actually been surnamed Juliet and Nurse.) To keep it from going overboard, they have to explain that the Mercutio and Tybalt characters don’t actually die, but even this doesn’t resolve the glaring point that if one cadet is believed to have killed another, the result wouldn’t be mere banishment!
These considerations are endlessly distracting, and yet, and yet—we keep hearing Shakespeare’s words delivered with passion, and this alone is so compelling that the thing stays watchable no matter the context. The acting is the movie’s second ace, since Seth Numrich and Matt Doyle are completely convincing as pie-eyed lovers. One of Brown’s most interesting decisions, consistent with his progressive political context, is to revive a theatrical tradition whereby the ending is revised; it’s been a couple of centures since that happened, but it really does make sense. And of course, it also harks back to the Elizabethan tradition of casting boys in female roles. So you see, nothing can beat Shakespeare’s survival skills.
// Notes from the Road
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