If you were to take Shakespeare’s ten tragedies randomly in hand and attempt to order them in terms of the maturity levels of characters and plot, you most likely would end up putting them in the same order in which they were written, thus reflecting Shakespeare’s growth as a writer. Hence, his later tragedies like King Lear and Coriolanus, are plays that tend to work like a well-matched professional chess game with players skillfully posturing and jockeying for position. These later plays contain fully-realized characters and carefully plotted events, albeit with a tone that shows a growing distaste for the world. As such, his earlier works tend to play out with characters that lack development, ones who make rash, short-sighted decisions along with a plot that hinges on coincidence and happenstance, all of which reveal a naïveté usually connected to youth.
So, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s second attempt at tragedy, tends to lack the sophistication and satisfaction that accompanies Iago’s devious plotting or Macbeth’s ominous rise to power. The lovers of R&J are too impulsive in their devotion to each other, the friar’s hasty actions in the name of love too frustrating, and the final moments played out too conveniently (or inconveniently) to suggest polished writing. It’s the mark of a talented playwright just starting out. Yes, there are a number of iconic scenes, and yes, Mercutio and Juliet and memorably fond characters, but on the whole, its number of issues often times outweigh the desired impact.
The play also seems to be wildly popular.
Even today, with a recent Broadway production starring Orlando Bloom, Kenneth Branagh’s current London stage (and filmed) production, an upcoming television series sequel, and now Francesco Nuzzi’s Star Crossed Lovers, the public is still clamoring for more. Maybe it’s 9th grade English nostalgia, when our 14-year-old selves first experienced Shakespeare, and our maturity level found a kindred soul in one of the two titular characters. Or maybe the rest of the world desperately holds onto the possibility of true love and those of us (the anti-Friar Lawrences, I suppose) who become more jaded with young, passionate love are growing fewer in number. Either way, it’s the play that just won’t die, and like a young Shakespeare with lots of savvy and little experience, Nuzzi’s first film reveals a talent who shows great promise and deserves more opportunities to grow and mature as a filmmaker and a storyteller.
With sensible self-awareness in choosing Romeo and Juliet as the basis for his first film, the play’s simplistic love story, easy to handle plot twists, and sometimes too-thin characters provide a good foundation for a beginning filmmaker. However, not satisfied in directing a faithful adaptation (or maybe not budgeted to), Nuzzi sets his story in fair New Jersey, drawing from the Garden State’s more known and sometimes more infamous qualities. In a modern setting with its densely populated housing and well-manicured lawns, Nuzzi films in close pre-fab housing quarters, making his film a middle class cousin of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing.
The director’s choice in actors also reflects that NJ sensibility. With gelled-up pompadours, thick gold chains, and Ray-Bans that only Jersey could get away with, our Romeo and his friends are natives. Peter Evangelista’s northern Jersey ethnic look with his dark hair, tight white shirt, arm bandana and gold catholic pendant, contrasts well with Lauren Muraski’s southern Jersey Shore belle Juliet, with her lighter complexion, blonde hair, soft features, and Ralph Lauren pastel wardrobe. It’s a Jersey Shore match made in Heaven, and Nuzzi’s purposeful choices extend beyond the sometimes stereotypical, giving additional depth to well-known conflict. His decision to put Tybalt and Mercutio both in the armed forces but have them at the opposite ends of the spectrum helps effectively further define the dynamic between the two. Mercutio’s controlling PTSD and plain fatigues that show a lack of significant rank (most likely choosing a life filled with buffoonery and keg-stands over advancement) contrast well with Tybalt’s high-ranking military bars (with probably no wartime experience) and gung-ho attitude. The added dynamic of jealousy and disrespect develop the already flickering tension between the two, and the payoff is that much more effective in their confrontation.
Director Nuzzi plays it mostly straight, without diverting from most accepted productions too much, but the small choices that are made to update the film distinguish it from others. With a handheld camera, the sometimes shaky feel contributes to the comfortable, natural setting, as if we are spying on our neighbor’s intimate conversations. When filled with potentially explosive energy, Director of Photography John Hedlund displays a deft confidence with camera movement as it thrillingly swoops through these moments of intensity and violence, capturing just the right angle or lighting with just the right hue. Viewers feel as if we are watching things we shouldn’t, intimacy not intended for our senses, making guarded moments that much more private. Nuzzi inserts technology use (as expected) where he can, as Prince Escalus watches fight security footage, Benvolio stops Mercutio and Romeo mid-confessional to take a selfie, and Paris gets set up to marry Juliet in an iPhone conference call. It’s a clever addition that might be proven more so with a greater consistency, as we wonder, when Juliet decides to fake her own death, why didn’t she just text Romeo the details?
With any production of R&J, most directors know that their Juliet can make or break the show, despite having fewer lines than Romeo. Whereas Romeo is all puppy-eyed melancholy and swooning, Juliet is a rag doll of emotions, torn between a number of forces and wills. She is manipulated, won over, lost, crushed, outraged, and secretive. Baz Luhrmann must have known that fact, as the magnificent Claire Danes is head and shoulders above a stiff and awkward Leonardo DiCaprio. So here, although Evangelista is a capable Romeo, it’s Muraski with whom we can’t take our eyes off. Her subtle glances, tender motions, and loving gazes are gently juxtaposed with her teary laments of misfortune and outright terror to her father’s threats. Moreover, her skillful nuances and approaches steadily develop and solidify every one of her scenes as they play out. At first, the initial meet of Romeo and Juliet lacks the necessary sparks to convince the audience of their love-at-first-sight attraction, but through practiced interaction and an attention to each other’s acting strengths, by the time they are pledging devotion to each other, seemingly moments later on the balcony, the heat has been turned up and the chemistry has clicked.
Nuzzi’s reliance on his actors for primary audience engagement proves to be a wise decision. There are astute small business choices throughout, as actors add to the scene with small but character-defining actions: Tybalt gluttonously stuffs his face in front of Lord Capulet at his party, County Paris gets his hand slapped by a servant when reaching for an apple before it’s served, Mercutio and Benvolio offer cigars to Lord Capulet to win his favor and entrance to his party, and Lord Capulet proudly presents a suckling pig to his party guests. These choices from the director and the actors are what emotionally connect us to these characters, helping us to cherish them and care about their fates, and have us wishing for more, especially in the latter acts.
But it’s also choices like these that reveal a game cast ready for anything. Standouts include Greg Jolley as Lord Capulet, with his large, thick presence at once displaying empathy and comradery which turns to frightening menace as he berates and threatens with an undertone of violence. Many times in the script, Jolley could easily have slipped into caricature that lacks dimensionality, but he deftly keeps the portrayal human and heartfelt—you end up feeling sorry for him where other productions tend to vilify him. Ted Wrigley’s Friar Lawrence emotes gray-haired wisdom and hope, especially when he has to talk Romeo down from killing himself. Wrigley’s portrayal is wrought with shock and surprise tinged with outrage, and his quick verbal delivery shows a familiar ease and skill with the language. Melissa Harlow’s nurse, although a bit too sassy and screechy at times, understands well the crassness of the character and manages to deliver strong emotion in her quieter moments, while Emily Williams as Benvolia displays possibly the most natural affect of the bunch, but her character is regulated to a handful of scenes and disappears much too quickly.
Despite some minor technical issues and the occasional wane, like a young Shakespeare, Nuzzi and Hedlund show good raw talent and a keen eye, displaying a true love for the material and their cast members. Given the more than modest budget of $15,000, Nuzzi is able to accomplish much, most likely through favors from family and friends. Thankfully, he doesn’t betray their confidence and makes good on promises made, mostly likely (and hopefully) earning him future favors from the same people. And if so, those future efforts may end up standing in the pantheon of seminal Shakespearean productions.
Until then, accomplished and resourceful, Star Crossed Lovers may not be a main entrée at the Romeo and Juliet feast, but it’s a tasty appetizer, a nice entry point for budding Shakespeare enthusiasts, and a possible addition to next year’s 9th grade New Jersey English curriculum.
Star Crossed Lovers can be viewed and purchased through http://www.starcrossedloversmovie.com which is having a $5 off summer sale until September 15, 2016. Watch the trailer below.
Correction (08/18/16): The director and DP names were corrected to reflect their production roles. The summer sale date was extended.