As a director he has his moments (I was pretty much meh on his Hamlet film but I will say it's the only time I've ever bought the Hamlet/Ophelia backstory). But again, a bag of tricks. He likes to mess with setting. He likes to make visual reference to old movies. He likes to cast against type. He likes to cast Derek Jacobi.
So, his Romeo & Juliet: Setting messed with? Check. Visual reference to old movies? Check. Casting against type? Check. Derek Jacobi? Bingo!
The fair Verona where he lays his scene is a slightly post-WWII Italy -- some recovery has taken place, there's food to be eaten, champagne to be drunk, parties to crash, but the old stone walls of Christopher Oram's set are pocked with bullet holes. The attempt at a post-war feminine lightness - dresses, hairstyles, manners -- speaks of hard times past and better days in the offing. But we're stuck in a world (In a world...) being drawn in different directions at once, somewhere between Fellini, Godfather-esque verismo, and film noir.
This last is perhaps more driven home in the cinemacast than it was in the theater, as they elected to film it all in black & white. It makes a point, but I'm not sure technically you can have it both ways -- it's wearing on the eyes after awhile, which a black & white film (a good one) should never be.
Lily James is good as Juliet -- a Juliet who's been around the block a bit more than most Juliets, but war is like that. She manages to make the verse conversational, and she's convincing, although Branagh doesn't give her much of a character arc to work with. She ends pretty much where she began, except dead. Richard Madden as Romeo does a really great Young Branagh imitation -- he delivers the lines exactly as the boss would have done. He does it really well. One wishes he wouldn't.
The two of them are nice to look at. Can't say I was all that sorry at the end. Mission
Regular readers of this blog also know that when a casting choice in a standard rep work plants a signpost pointing off in some other direction, I get a little less slumpy in my chair. So the evening begins with an over-long Branagh voiceover telling some lengthy anecdote about Oscar Wilde in his last days in Paris being a jumping-off point for casting Derek Jacobi in the role of Mercutio. Usually a kind of hyper, sometimes fairly annoying, but young character, prone to poetic overdrive, here he's an old aesthete who likes to hang out with the boys. And they with him, critically. He's prone to poetic overdrive, yes, but Jacobi, whose Shakespearean acting style is nowadays slightly tipping over into Old Skool, brings exactly the right amount of heightening to heightened speech. His Mercutio isn't having a series of verbal seizures so much as he's picking out finely detailed fancies to distract himself, and everyone else, from the misery they've all recently lived through. It's clearly a technique that's kept him alive all these years. Only when he comes to speak of love, it isn't with the simple disdain of a footloose young man. Instead it's the cover for a whole life lived with those types -- Romeo's types -- of earnest declarations just out of reach. Or if in reach, impossibly dangerous to the touch. This Mercutio's flights of fancy and humor have a bright sheen of desperation and despair.
So it's when black-shirted Tybalt comes around, sword drawn and on the hunt for Romeo, that Mercutio, after a lifetime of blood dealings with blackshirts, and remembering in his bones all the old grievances and the long buried friends and lovers, picks up a sword for the last time.
Branagh likes to drive a truck through things. If you were going to floor it, this would be the place. He didn't, though, not quite. But the signpost alone was worth the somewhat unsatisfying rest of it.