From a World War II Macbeth in an Alan Ladd trench coat to a drug-dealing Shylock in an all-black Merchant of Venice set in Harlem, Shakespeare has been boldly “opened up” before. (A rock ’n’ roll Hamlet, anyone?) But a gay Romeo and Juliet, both played by military school cadets on their way to West Point, is a new one on me. It’s Private Romeo, a brave, controversial, not always successful, but hugely adventurous and highly liberated movie that offers a fresh take on the Bard in the age of same-sex marriage. Like it or not, you will not go away yawning.
When most of the students at the McKinley Military Academy go away for four days on a supervised land navigation exercise, the eight cadets who remain behind with no officers or faculty on campus are ordered to follow their usual classwork, homework and physical fitness routines. But as the English lit class studying Romeo and Juliet falls under the spell of the most romantic love story ever written, the two classmates reading the leads begin to take the Bard too seriously and live their roles as star-crossed lovers for real. Utilizing the actual text in a scaled-down version of the play’s tumult, writer-director Alan Brown embellishes old-world romance with modern concepts like YouTube videos and indie-rock tunes to broaden a young audience’s exposure to Shakespeare and provide fans of all ages with a fresh new way of looking at an old classic.
Instead of Verona, you get the gym, mess hall and dorm rooms of a military campus. Instead of class wars and family feuds, young plebes worry about demerits and falling in love. Between reveille and taps, they shower and drill and horse around, giggling at the flowery dialogue while nervously trying to ignore the impact it is having on their lives. The poetic exchange between Mercutio and Romeo, touching and groping each other in their tight shorts—“‘You are a lover. Borrow Cupid’s wings and soar with them …’ / ‘I am too sore piercèd with his shaft / To soar … / Under love’s heavy burden do I sink’”—becomes a new homoerotic double entendre. Spotting another lonely cadet in gym shorts sipping a beer, Romeo swoons: “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night!” It’s the cry of a boy on the verge of risking his popularity to come out of the closet. The director takes the same words Shakespeare wrote to convey a different kind of love story between men. Mercutio is now a jealous lover scorned. The death of Tybalt has been moved to a basketball court. Romeo’s lusty “What light through yonder window breaks?” is now addressed to the beam of a flashlight that lures him to Juliet’s dorm room after curfew. “Parting is such sweet sorrow” becomes a plaintive sigh between two horny guys whose kisses are interrupted by an impatient upperclassman before their passion is consummated. Every “prick” and “pump” has a hidden emphasis, as it did in Shakespeare’s day, when men played all of the women on stage.
If this is beginning to sound like a desperate overreach for the sake of shock value, I hasten to add that it is all performed with great taste and respect for the text. The big sex scene is a model of discretion. There was more nudity in the glossy Franco Zeffirelli version. But the acting, by a uniformly polished cast of terrific New York actors destined for huge things, is sincere enough to convince the most cynical skeptic. Seth Numrich, the marvelous young actor from the Lincoln Center production of War Horse, is a galvanizing Private Sam Singleton (a.k.a. Private Romeo), and Matt Doyle, as cadet Glenn Mangan, the hopelessly smitten lover who follows him to the altar, makes for a perfect pink-nippled, gooey-eyed Juliet. What Mr. Doyle does not do is sing with the same charm and precision that is on view in his acting. I am appalled the director ends it all with Juliet singing an out-of-tune pop-rock version of “You Made Me Love You” that reduces the final touching moments to unnecessary camp when none had gone before.
The entire supporting cast is flawless, especially Hale Appleman as a majestically duplicitous Mercutio (a.k.a. Private Josh Neff). The meticulous locations (SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, a high school in Mineola and Sarah Lawrence College) lend an authenticity no soundstages could suggest. And I respect the way the cadets guide us into a world of tenderness without a trace of homophobia, opening the grace of Shakespeare’s poetry to other interpretations beyond the traditional one. Here, love is blind, as it is today among the young. Reshaping the narrative into a 90-minute narrative, the Capulet-Montague feud is no longer clear. Mercutio lives, and so do the lovers. Love is all, as it is in As You Like It and other Shakespearean plays that erode the barriers of gender identity. No contemporary film that promotes love instead of war should be overlooked. Private Romeo will undoubtedly be regarded by some as a curio, but it’s a sweet, sympathetic and surprising one, highly recommended to the adventurous spirit in an enlightened and changing world.
Running Time 98 minutes
Written and Directed by Alan Brown
Starring Hale Appleman, Seth Numrich and Matt Doyle