Nearly all truly great cinematic romances showcase at least one great kiss that will send shivers down the spinal cords of enthused would-be-lovers. If you fall into this category and are currently seeking such a torso tremor, look no further than Alan Brown's all-male adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, a celluloid treat supplying a whole handful of these quality smooches.
Like Matthew Bourne's splendid take on Swan Lake, and unlike the recent Broadway fiasco On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Hall has rejiggered the genders of Shakespeare's classic with almost nary a misstep.
The scenario now takes place in modern times within the McKinley Military Academy. Eight male cadets -- the only students on the grounds due to their peers going on a supervised land navigation exercise -- are being put through their paces with marching ("Right! Left! Right!"), classwork, homework, and physical exercises. The classwork entails reading aloud from Romeo and Juliet.
In the early moments the young men take on this task with a sort of goofy glee, mocking the boys portraying the femmes. But as the days roll by, each becomes his part, and Sam/Romeo (Seth Numrich) and Glenn/Juliet (Matt Doyle) find themselves enamored with each other out of class, eventually transforming themselves into the "beast with two backs."
Mostly utilizing the actual text of the play, the film illuminates numerous scenes that have been obliterated of their subtexts in other productions, both the tender moments and the bawdy ones.
Thankfully, Brown does not go as far as Dr. Pauline Kiernan in her Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns (Gotham Books), when she elucidates Mercutio's speech:
"If love be blind, he won't be able to fuck the vagina. He'll sit under a medlar tree and wish his mistress were that kind of fruit that girls call open-arses when they're talking dirty on their own. O Romeo, if only she were, O if only she were an open arse, and you an erect penis popping it in her."
Who knew Will was ever so anal?
There is, in fact, nothing vulgar in Private Romeo, just extreme, testosterone-driven emotions often caught in close-ups with quick, telling cuts. And since males originally acted as Juliet, the Nurse, and Lady Capulet, and since several noted academics are arguing that Shakespeare himself was homosexual and/or bisexual (although not in the modern sense), the conceit of this project makes more and more sense as you confront its twists and turns.
But purists beware! Brown has made certain cuts and created certain game-changing transitions to keep the plot going at the Academy. Obviously, murders in 2012 would create the necessity for the police to be called in -- and the appearance of a Columbo-type would be rather disconcerting within this framework. However, the handsome cast does get away with playing basketball, doing pushups, plus tying a classmate to a chair and taping his mouth shut.
In the end, Private Romeo, with its indie budget, handsomely captures the uncompromising nature of young love, and "it ends with a long deep sigh, like the breeze of the evening," as Samuel Coleridge said it should. This film consequently will have an extremely healthy life on DVD, where students will gaily discover a whole new side of the Bard and possibly their own identities. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).