Monday, September 10, 2012

Netflix streaming tip: Alan Brown's PRIVATE ROMEO does Shakespeare proud

What a joy, what a blessing, what a thrill it is to hear Shake-speare's language in one of his most oft-produced plays -- Romeo and Juliet -- done by men, as men, rather than having an all-male cast dressed as both men and women proclaim this gorgeous language, as was done in the time of The Bard and continues to get recycled every few years by some would-be gender-bending/ envelope-pushing director. Not here. What a provocative piece of film-making!

Imagine R&J's balcony scene performed -- very well, I might add -- by two men proclaiming their love for each other. This is not simply "gay-friendly," though it certainly is that. Hearing a man speak the role of Juliet also topples notions of gender, what kinds of feelings "real" men ought to allow into their experience, and what they might actually, in a more accepting world, be allowed to think and say. This is bracing stuff, something new -- and not just for gays but for anyone who loves Shakespeare and isn't homophobic. (Those are indeed the two "musts" to consider before you tackle this particular movie.)

PRIVATE ROMEO's director and adapter/co-writer (along with the original work, there is dialog here that is definitely not Shakespeare's), Alan Brown, sets his movie in an all-male military prep school and begins it in a classroom where our young men are reading from the play. When they break and hit the washroom, they keep the dialog and style going. Along the way, however, scenes of military school life are tossed in. After the first or second time, these begin to meld nicely into each other. (Think of handling this in a manner similar to how you probably came to terms with the Alec Baldwin character in Woody Allen's recent To Rome With Love: it's odd and inconsistent, yes; but somehow it works.)

Fortunately, Mr Brown has cast his film with actors who can "do" Shakespeare's language. They range from acceptable to quite good, with no one falling down on the job. For me the standouts are Matt Doyle's Juliet (above), Hale Appleman's Mercutio/Capulet (below, left) and Chris Bresky's Nurse. These guys, as well as the other players, understand and feel what they are saying. Consequently, so will you. The filmmaker has also found some nifty, charming ideas to join the two time frames and styles. Remember the scene in which Juliet's nurse arrives so out of breath? In this case, it's because his superior officer has just made him do 50 push-ups and a few laps around the track.

The eight-member cast plays multiple roles (except for the actors handling R&J) and all get the chance to shine. Nowhere near the entire play is given here, just enough scenes to keep the plot on track. (If you don't know the play, you should probably forget about viewing the movie. The filmmaker, I suspect, is counting on his audience to have been there/seen that.) Some liberties are taken along the way, the most shocking of which occurs at the finale. Don't worry: This is not anything approaching a definitive R&J. And the ending, in its surprising way, makes a wonderful statement of freedom. And then, in a scene that may remind you of one from The History Boys, our Juliet sings a terrific and appropriate song.

Private Romeo (that's Seth Numrich as Romeo, above) is available now via streaming or DVD from Netflix, and probably from other sources, as well.

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