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April Fool’s Week 2015: Tony Lazlo Takes Down Two Versions of Romeo & Juliet and Two Versions of Henry V

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

To close out April Fool’s Week 2015, CC2K’s Tony Lazlo does some makeup homework, covering two versions of Romeo & Juliet, two versions of Henry V, all while finding time to revisit Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and Julie Taymor’s Titus. Enjoy!

So here’s the deal with me and April Fool’s Week: I’m playing catch-up. Let me explain:

The last time we held an April Fool’s Week, CC2K co-founder Rob Van Winkle instructed me to dismantle one of my favorite movies, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and sadly, I flaked on the assignment. Well, I’m also in danger of flaking on this year’s assignment, which was to write an article praising — or perhaps shaking my head in astonished disgust at — two recent Romeo & Juliet adaptations, Gnomeo & Juliet and the 2013 adaptation written by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes and directed by Carlo Carlei. I’ll get to both of those movies, but first I want to redress my shortfall from a few years ago and talk about how both the Branagh and Olivier films of Henry V suck balls. 

If you’re an old fan of this site, then you’re undoubtedly familiar with my takedown of Branagh’s ambitious film version of Hamlet that I squeezed into a sycophantic love-fest for Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Titus Andronicus. You can read the entire embarrassing screed here at CC2K. It was one of my first big essays for the site, and looking back, it’s also one my most ill-conceived and obnoxious. A lot can change in a decade, including a person’s entire personality, worldview and personal tastes, apparently. I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up essay about how my feelings regarding both movies have changed over the years, but as I’ve never gotten around to it, I’ll content myself to retract and (mostly) reverse my stance on both movies. 

Rest assured I’m not about to say that Taymor’s movie “sucks donkey balls,” as I so eloquently put it in my essay from 2005, but watching it again recently, I found it to be surprisingly slow for such an all-out production. The pace of the movie is less “runaway train” more “punctuated equilibrium,” which is surprising, given that the first act unfolds over 30 nonstop pages of action, and the remainder of the play is basically a hopscotch game from one bloody setpiece to the next. 

That said, I want to be sure I’m careful with my words. I still very much like Taymor’s Titus, and it’s a far more successful movie than her largely inert take on The Tempest, but my feelings about it have changed. It’s a damn good movie, and we’re lucky that an artist of Taymor’s caliber assembled such an amazing creative team to take on one of Shakespeare’s deepest cuts, but it’s not the unmitigated success I thought it was a decade ago.

By contrast, I want to fully retract my earlier thoughts about Branagh’s movie. Looking back at my old review, I see a younger, stupider version of myself. I see a preening blowhard with an unearned regard for his intellect and knowledge of Shakespeare, as well as a temperamental fan who wasn’t willing to put in the work to empathize with Branagh and better appreciate what he was striving for in his movie. 

There’s a much longer essay to be written here, but briefly I’ll say that Branagh’s Hamlet is an “entertainment” in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Back in the old days, when we went to the movies, we mostly went to be entertained, and we expected to get our money’s worth. Lots of movies in the old days offered up a full slate of action, comedy, romance, and even singing and dancing, and I think Branagh was really trying to deliver an old-fashioned night at the movies when he tackled Hamlet for the screen.

Branagh has inevitably drawn comparisons to Olivier over the course of his career, but when it came to Hamlet, replicating Olivier’s dour slog was the last thing on Branagh’s mind. He was trying to make a Gone With the Wind — a big, roomy, ambitious and energetic movie that taxed his limits as a filmmaker, as well as the theaters that screened the movie, which is shot on gorgeous 70mm stock and is shown with an intermission. 

Even less successful scenes speak to Branagh’s efforts to channel all manner of old-fashioned moviegoing experiences. For example, I’d say that the least effective scene in the movie is when Hamlet first meets his father’s ghost. Check it out: 

I still can’t figure out why Branagh asked the booming-voiced Brian Blessed to whisper all his lines, but watching the movie again (as I have several times over the last few years), I can better grok how Branagh was trying to give us a real B-movie experience in this scene. His impulse was to hearken back to an older style of moviemaking, with a lot of cheesy close-ups and overly dramatic lighting splashed across his actors’ faces. It’s Shakespeare by way of Ed Wood, and I get it. (There’s actually a similar impulse behind Francis Coppola’s low-tech adaptation of Dracula.)

And here’s the thing: Most of Branagh’s movie is fantastic. Look no further than Charlton Heston’s classic turn at the Player King:

Or my personal favorite scene, “the readiness is all”:

I also want to heap praise on the action following the “closet” scene, after Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius. There’s a conversation to be had about Branagh’s interpretation of Hamlet himself, but I very much appreciate how his Hamlet comes across as young, lively, hyper-intelligent — and extremely pissed off. That’s not to everyone’s liking, and to be sure, there is a robust tradition of Hamlet being played as a far more morose figure, but Branagh’s interpretation has a place in the pantheon of Hamlets. I don’t know if anyone out there remembers the 1997 production of Hamlet at the old Chicago Shakespeare Repertory — now the Chicago Shakespeare Theater — but that production featured an energetic and fiery Hamlet that reminds me of Branagh’s.

Anyway, here’s the scene:

I can’t put my finger on why, but the last time I watched this scene, the full weight of Branagh’s vision came down on me. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. I got this wonderful sense that I was watching an honest grasp at the definitive from Branagh; a big-hearted effort to capture the play in one of its best forms, with all of the most handsome trappings he could muster and all the best forces he could marshal. It was the same feeling I got while watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies for the first time – the palpable sense that one of our species’ greatest stories was being set down for posterity. No, Branagh’s movie doesn’t close the door on Hamlet – how could it? – but all the same, this is what Shakespeare looks like when someone who absolutely loves Shakespeare adapts it for the screen with a cheerful desire to share it with everyone. It’s big. It’s joyful. It’s incredibly entertaining.

I wish I could’ve realized that sooner.

But I come to bury Branagh (and Olivier), not to praise them, which brings me to their movies of Henry V. Here’s what I can say in their disfavor, starting with Olivier’s:

Holy shit. Can this guy do anything besides shout his lines? I know Olivier’s famous for his sonorous, classically trained pipes, but did anyone ever teach this guy about nuance? Or subtlety? Or boom mikes? As evidence of Olivier’s one-note acting, look no further than this, the world’s shittiest video of the famed “tennis balls” speech from act one of his 1944 movie:

Further evidence can be found in the “Once more unto the breach” speech, delivered before Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland:

OK, now that I’ve properly put Olivier in his place, let’s turn our attention to Branagh’s movie, which was famously shot on the cheap in England, resulting in a fun drinking game I like to call, “Find the hidden power lines.” Branagh’s good-hearted movie could’ve benefitted from a few more doubloons in his coffers before they went into production, if only so he wouldn’t have to shoot his entire movie in a succession of close-ups and weird, canted angles (up and down) to avoid capturing anything anachronistic in-frame:

To Branagh’s credit, I think we can say with confidence that he’s not comfortable with arranged marriages, or with the idea that women should be treated like livestock! His and Emma Thompson’s take on the famous “wooing of Katherine” scene in act five comes across as the least like a human trafficking exchange of any production I’ve seen. He even manages not to sound like a total lunatic when he delivers the line “I love France so well, I will not part with a village of it. I will have it all mine!” 

What a lovely bully, indeed.

Let me now turn my attention to this year’s assignment, which was to review the two aforementioned adaptations of R&J. I’ve watched — or buzzed through while rolling my eyes — both movies, and here’s the big surprise: Gnomeo and Juliet actually ain’t bad, while the Fellowes/Carlei movie is pretty much a shambles. Let me try to explain why:

There’s nothing wrong with a loose adaptation of Shakespeare. I’m a huge fan (and sometimes apologist) for movies like O or Ten Things I Hate About You. Gnomeo and Juliet falls into roughly the same category as those two movies in that it uses the play as a basic starting point. The result is a modern-day fable on the order of the Star-Bellied Sneeches: Two feuding neighbors, Mrs. Capulet and Mr. Montague, both have front lawns filled with plaster gnomes that comes to life, Toy Story-style, when they’re not around. The red Capulet gnomes and the blue Montague gnomes despise one another and engage in various games of one-upmanship to demonstrate their dominance over their collective backyards. 

It’s not a great adaptation, and as far as kids movies go, Gnomeo and Juliet is no Pixar movie, or even a Lego Movie. I’d put it in the same league as, say, Despicable Me or its many sequels. It’s one of a million disposable kids movies that feature a lot of lowbrow humor (for the kids) and grown-up one-liners (for the adults). There’s nothing wrong with that kind of divide, but such movies miss out on an important truth: Good storytelling and honest character moments and motivations are funny and will connect with audiences, no matter how old they are. 

All the same, it ain’t bad, and the voice talent is fantastic. Dolly Parton shows up for no reason, and Jason Statham plays this movie’s version of Tybalt. There’s also a real sense of play with language that speaks to an underlying appreciation for the movie’s origins. Here’s the “gnome” version of the balcony scene.

Pretty cute, huh? It’s almost cute enough to wash away the bad taste of the Julian Fellowes/Carlei take on R&J. Now, before I start hurling invective, let me pause and say that I appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do here. For whatever reason, they saw fit to jettison a lot of the original text in favor of a largely new script that follows the contours of Shakespeare’s play but tells the story with mostly new and lightly modernized dialogue. Here’s a good example:

I get it. We want Shakespeare to be appealing, and we want to make it accessible to all ages. But all the same, I think it does a great disservice to kids to today to offer them anything other than a full-throated endorsement of Shakespeare’s brilliant language and excellent storytelling. I feel like a new adaptation of R&J should hit theaters every generation or so to keep the story alive in the minds of the young. In the 60s, we got Franco Zeffirelli’s immortal adaptation, and in the 90s, we got Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized adaptation, and in both cases, I would argue that Shakespeare’s text was incredibly well served. To be sure, the Zeffirelli film is the more traditional adaptation, but that’s not what makes it great. What makes it great is just how damn passionate the whole enterprise is. Let’s not forget his daring choice to cast age-appropriate actors in the two lead roles; behold Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey: 

I can’t stress enough how much this movie feels like a miracle; like a sublime confluence of talent and hope and youth. We’re lucky to have it. In the same spirit, Luhrmann tapped two of the day’s hottest young talents to headline his movie (Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes), and even though DiCaprio’s performance isn’t one for the ages, the movie’s sheer volcanic force and manic visual grandeur make up for it. Here’s the movie’s utterly bananas opening, still a favorite scene of mine after all these years:


I realize that the Luhrmann movie has its many detractors. If you’re one of ’em, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Similarly, if you’re an apologist for the Fellowes/Carlei film, and you think I’m missing the point, I happily invite suggestion and correction below.

I hope now that my April Fool’s Week conscience is fully cleansed.