Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny ...
So starts the familiar story of two long-feuding families and two young and beautiful teens―Juliet, from the Capulet family, and Romeo from the house of Montague.
This pretty pair, both just starting out on youth's discovery of the joys and wonders of life, spot each other quite by accident at a party. And they are instantly drawn together. Of course, they're also by blood required to be enemies, torn apart by their families' mutual hatred.
We all know how long that lasts, though. One quick balcony scene later and the two are quite ready to throw care to the wind and be married by the local friar.
"Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast," the good friar warns Romeo about his enflamed I-want-her-now desires. But, well, teen ardor isn't easily thwarted, not now and not way back then. Neither is a long-held grudge. And if and when Juliet's combative cousin Tybalt suspects Romeo of tiptoeing around the family barricades, well, things are going to get nasty. Nasty and deadly.
There are numerous bad decisions made in the course of this story. But it can be said that some of them do indeed teach us rightness by way of exposing wrongness. Others are at least made with the best of intentions. An example: Friar Laurence secretly marries Romeo and Juliet and later sets up a ruse to help them be together. His choices cascade into near craziness, but he makes them with the hope that the holy union of these two teens will heal the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues, nay, even make positive changes throughout the whole city.
Romeo and Juliet meet one night and marry the next day, but they both see marriage as the only way to truly show their undying commitment to each other. They and the friar all earnestly care for and respect one another. And they're all willing to sacrifice their own comfort for the sake of a righteous cause―Romeo and Juliet for the sake of love and the friar for the sake of God's forgiveness.
Friar Laurence repeatedly brings up the fact that God's way is often mysterious, but it's also always a patient, sincere and forgiving way. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, their discussion turns to the touch of hands and the blending of lips: Juliet states that lips are intended for prayer and then wonders if she invites in sin when giving in to a first kiss. Romeo assures her, however, of his honorable intentions and soon asks for her hand in marriage. A large statue of the crucified Christ overlooks the pair's wedding as the friar prays for them and blesses their joining. He conducts the services in Latin, but clearly marries them in the name of the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost."
There are several mentions made of someone being consigned to hell, thanks to choices made in life. We hear, for instnace, the line, "Best intentions pave the way to hell." Juliet's father, not knowing that his daughter is already married, demands that she marry the nobleman Count Paris ... leaving Juliet to worry that she must either be cast out of her father's home or cast herself into hell for breaking her vows. She wears a cross around her neck.
Romeo's exclamation of "Oh my dear God!" isn't precisely reverent.
Shakespeare was known to layer sexual barbs or undertones into some of his scenes. That's kept to a minimum in this version of his play, but there are still a few light nods given in that direction. A sly joke is made about two male friends "consorting like minstrels." Friar Laurence worries that Romeo was out all night playing "Satan's game." And a wife rubs up against her husband and subtly hints at past infidelities that would keep him up all night. Juliet's nurse reports that her young charge would rather "lay with a stinky toad" than get married to Count Paris. On the other hand, she doesn't hesitate to speak glowingly of Romeo's handsome face and beautiful body.
On their wedding night, Romeo and Juliet kiss and embrace―he bare-chested and she dressed in a flowing nightgown. The next morning we see them still entwined, dressed the same way. Romeo cups his wife's (fully clothed) backside.
The Capulets and Montagues are often goading one another into hot-headed fights in the streets. And so we are witness to numerous sword and fistfights with either crowds of men swinging blades and wrestling in the dust or two opponents locked in deadly combat. We see three up-close swordfights that end with a blade being shoved into the chest or back of one of the foes. Blood subsequently spreads across the slain combatant's shirt and/or drips from his mouth.
A woman thrusts a blade into her own abdomen to commit suicide. We see and hear the metal tear through fabric and flesh, and watch her slump forward. A man poisons himself.
Juliet's enraged father throws her roughly back on her bed and threatens her with a clenched fist when she stands against his will.
Crude or Profane Language
While correctly used for the time period, it's worth noting here that someone is compared to a "bitch in heat." A rowdy man is called a "princox."
Drug and Alcohol Content
A Capulet party boasts much drinking and rowdy revelry. Romeo's friend Mercutio staggers away while swigging from a pitcher full of drink. Friar Laurence uses the essence of a flower to concoct a powerful sedative that Juliet later drinks. Romeo bribes an apothecary to give him a poison.
Other Negative Elements
The fact that Romeo falls helplessly in love with Juliet upon first seeing her (while she's wearing a mask, no less) can easily be seen as both illogical and romantically foolish.
Ah, how doth one speak of a Shakespearean play put to film?
Well, I guess the first step is to recognize that there have been many such efforts made before, and esthetically this one probably falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.
The 16th century Verona settings and palatial backdrops are lush and appealing. The music is sweet. And the vibrant young leads both acquit themselves, uh, nicely. Shakespearean language―even a version like this that's been tweaked and rendered a bit less poetic―can, and in this case does, overwhelm the young actors from time to time. And that drains away some of the tale's expected fervor and passion. But performances such as Paul Giamatti's take on Friar Laurence brilliantly make up the difference. (Making this, likely, one of the few versions of this lauded tragedy that lets the good friar drive the audience's tearful response.)
All of that said, however, it's also important to ask what viewers, especially younger viewers, might take away from a beautifully appointed film like this. Well. With its deadly sword fights and in-the-street-squabbles, this star-crossed costume drama can easily be seen as a cautionary tale dealing with the foolishness of mankind and its warring ways. Its doomed lovers' conclusion illustrates how we, in our passions, try to control the things of our lives and wrest them away from God's hand. Friar Laurence remarks pointedly on the idiocy of such a choice. And the film subtly suggests that if Romeo and Juliet had been a little more patient and trusted God to rule their beginnings and ends, then they both could have lived happily ever after, no matter what their feuding families chose to do.
However, colorful images of vengeful battles and tearful lovers' suicides can convey other messages as well. And that's where this version of Romeo & Juliet requires mature adults to walk younger viewers through some of its more difficult-to-process elements.
Are warnings against strife and suicide clearly perceived in this proscenium-like portrayal ... or something completely opposite? How does the unbridled passion of love-at-first-sight fit into our modern experience? With parental involvement, these questions can be rich with thought. Without it, some lessons learned may be more dangerous than even the Bard intended.