ROMEO AND JULIET ★★★
Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company
Selected cinemas, from August 27
Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford have directed a presentable Romeo and Juliet with a fine Juliet in Lily James, a bearable Romeo (Richard Madden) and in Meera Syal – Grandma Kumar herself – as fine a Nurse as the British stage could offer.
It also – bewilderingly – has 77-year-old Derek Jacobi, as moody young sport Mercutio, and Marisa Berenson (a monument to Branagh’s luxury casting) as a grand-looking but stilted sounding Lady Capulet.
James and Madden starred in Branagh’s Cinderella, but in this film transcription, Branagh and his broadcast director Benjamin Caron have taken the wrongheaded decision to film Romeo and Juliet in black and white, because that’s how Fellini did La Dolce Vita in 1960.
The upshot is needlessly dull in visual terms, and comes nowhere near achieving the deep blacks and ravishing whites of Fellini. On the stage of the Garrick Theatre this production might have looked like a thrilling approximation to the post neo-Realist Italian cinema, but here it looks grey and cheap and inappropriate.
It’s just one of those big bright vulgar ideas Branagh can’t resist. So too is Jacobi as Mercutio (why not Friar Laurence) though he does give a marvellous account of the Queen Mab speech. James is full of tempests and landslides of emotion as an unusually vivid and variegated Juliet. Madden’s intelligent, poised Romeo cannot match the intensity with which she caresses and tears at Shakespeare’s language.
But it’s Syal who’s the marvel here. Earthy and imaginative, with flawless timing and the widest possible fund of folk wisdom and folk folly, this is a Nurse to die for. See it for her, and for the way Branagh has taught James how to make love to Shakespeare.