Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene — or in the Lyttelton Theater in London, in the case of this movie. The PBS TV program “Great Performances” partnered with London’s National Theatre to bring their production of “Romeo & Juliet” to the screen after its initial summer 2020 performance run was canceled. The TV movie premiered on April 23 on the PBS app and stars Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley as Romeo and Juliet.
While this story has been told time and time again, the changes in this version of “Romeo & Juliet” make it vibrant. The characters and the atmosphere is electric. Watching each character fill the screen makes viewers get attached to the characters, especially to Juliet, and causes audiences to wish they can alter the series of events that leads to the story’s irreversible ending. The movie manages to have each event feel like a tragedy and not a cliche.
The production sticks to Shakespearean language and stays true to most of the original play, though does incorporate many changed aspects. For example, Lady Capulet (Tasmin Greig) delivered many of Lord Capulet’s original lines. Shakespeare purists might be upset at another change — the modernization of the play. The ball where Romeo meets Juliet is more similar to a warehouse party. As Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, she sings into a microphone, hauntingly moaning a song.
In the beginning, the film does not attempt to mask that it takes place on a stage; no set design was done to make it feel as if the characters are in Verona. Instead, the viewer feels as if they are watching a rehearsal of a play. The first scene shows all the actors gathered around, sitting on chairs as they hear the first lines of narration spoken as if they are listening to stage directions. The film is shown as if the group of actors are putting together the performance with the materials they have on hand, but slowly, the viewer is sucked in as the world of Romeo and Juliet becomes real. The wooden props used as knives in the beginning of the film look like real blades by the end. Similarly, Juliet’s room becomes an actual room after first being a bed in a cluttered stage.
The most important change in this version of “Romeo and Juliet” is the representation of the women in the play. In Shakespeare’s original play, the women come off as ditzy, naive, meek and timid. Juliet was understood to be a foolish girl that was consumed by her infatuation with Romeo, her nurse uneducated and Lady Capulet distant and selfish. The movie vindicates these characters by interpreting their roles differently, successfully demonstrated by Buckley and Greig.
Greig’s performance as Lady Capulet is marvelous and grabs the viewer’s attention in each scene she is in. Greig fills the character with a spitefulness and controlling nature; her version of Lady Capulet is conniving. She is the one in control in the Capulet household, and her behavior has Juliet on edge as she forces Juliet to do what she wants. In one scene, she is able to stop Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, from starting a fight which would have embarrassed her. The viewer then understands that Lady Capulet exercises her ability to destroy others for her own sake. While this goes along with the original portrayal of Lady Capulet as selfish, it’s a refreshing take that shows that she no longer depends on her husband for her reputation but is the one shaping it.
Buckley is also able to lift Juliet from the naive character Shakespeare wrote. Her version of Juliet is on the verge of breaking as the stress of her family and their feud with the Montagues presses down on her. The monologues she delivers are not the silly dreams of a girl who has just fallen in love, but of someone trying to keep a grip on life. The movie feels like viewers are watching Juliet crack. Buckley’s performance is full of passion, and Juliet’s love doesn’t seem like the rosiness of a first love. It is genuine. She is constantly worrying for Romeo, who O’Connor also gives an excellent performance as.
He doesn’t change much of the original version of the character, but he is able to embody the role. He makes the anger Romeo has toward the familial dispute appear as if it didn’t rise from trivial disputes between boys, but of a deeply rooted fear of his demise by an awful destiny he feels the universe has set.
Overall, the program is beautiful. Despite Buckley and O’Connor being older than the roles they play, their acting fills the characters and brings them to life. There are no dull scenes in the movie. Every actor brilliantly executed their role, adding to the movie’s depth.
Verdict: This movie must be watched. PBS’ “Romeo & Juliet” isn’t a typical remake; it is a masterful adaptation of a well-known story.