Romeo and Juliet ★★★★½

This is an astonishingly good translation of the Shakespeare play, devised and demanded by the brilliant, doomed producer Irving Thalberg, but only greenlit in the wake of Warner Bros' massively successful Midsummer Night's Dream, staged by Max Reinhardt. Thalberg was a prodigious, literary-minded man with an ailing body but a will of steel, who had escaped into books during a teenage year committed to his bed, and in the final years before his death at 37 brought to the screen such ambitious projects as The Good Earth and Marie Antoinette. His fingerprints are all over the best moments of this extravagantly mounted movie and, as much as I like elements of Luhrmann's version, this is one of the few film adaptations of Shakespeare that renders his work accessible to a modern audience without resorting to gimmickry or novelty.

Its masterstroke - and bizarrely its most derided element - lies in the casting of the titular lovers. At 36, Norma Shearer was twice as old as Juliet (who's supposed to be 14), while the 43-year-old Leslie Howard is at least 20 years older than the typical present-day Romeo. In the grand scheme of things, though, it doesn't really matter. Not only can they each pass for a decade younger - sprightly and sensitively lit as they are - but in order for the play to work, the flowering of first love needs only to convince, not to be between teenagers. It does that effortlessly, partly because both the leads are absolutely sensational.

As a rule, I'm far more a fan of Howard's humorous work than his dramatic parts. In films like Pygmalion and It's Love I'm After he's a comic whirlwind, a force to be reckoned with, spewing epithets and brilliant bile, seizing the material and contorting it to devastating ends. In his dramatic parts, he tends to be a bit of a wet blanket. But whereas his speechifying introspection in The Petrified Forest - that risible philosophical gangster movie - comes across as unbearably smug and irritating, put him in tights, in love and in the right setting, and such characterisation can work wonders. Added to which, he's simply a lot better here, his heartbreaking portrayal of the tragic lover equipped with a quicksilver air and a latent dynamism to go with that impossibly romantic posturing.

Shearer was married to Thalberg, and the likes of Joan Crawford spend a good deal of their time downplaying her talent, saying she was cross-eyed (she was, but it's very charming) and that she only got ahead because she was "sleeping with the boss". Considering that Crawford was not only about a tenth of the actress that Shearer was, but was actually sleeping with most of her bosses, that seems a bit rich. At her best, Shearer was an absolutely exceptional performer: a great actress, a muse, a centrepiece of truly great romances like The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, Lubitsch's immortal silent. Certainly she achieved less after Thalberg's death - her final film, We Were Dancing, really is a bit of a clunker - and clearly he tailored films to her talents, but what talents they were. She's a magnificent Juliet: ethereal, impulsive and matchlessly tender, grasped by one emotion and then the next, navigating a complex part with a skill, intelligence and emotional sensitivity that takes the breath away. Yes she's 36, but - without wanting to sound too much like a pompous idiot (it is hard for me) - is that honestly the level at which we're going to judge art? "She's a bit old"?

It's that stunning central coupling, perfect together or alone, their masterful handling of the dialogue rendering it utterly modern and entirely unforgettable, that gives the film its grip, its hold, its haunting power, and makes up for the things the movie does wrong, several of which are slightly baffling. Edna May Oliver, perhaps the least talented person in '30s America, is typically one-note as Juliet's nurse, while future John Ford stock company alumnus Andy Devine provides atrocious comic relief in a beefed-up role as her assistant. And, then, of course, there are Shakespeare's own shortcomings. He was one hell of a writer - of course he was - but that doesn't mean you can't quibble with plotting that includes a potion replicating the symptoms of death, a father figure who can't really be arsed to ensure Romeo's safety, and an extremely sudden, remarkably convenient outbreak of pestilence.

There's also bloody Mercutio, of course, arguably the most annoying character in theatre, here brought to life by the 54-year-old John Barrymore (OK, Thalberg, now you really are taking the piss), the legendary thespian who transformed the art of Shakespeare with his stage versions of Richard III and Hamlet, but here is a mere bloated, pointing shadow of his former self, his energy and genius traded for a raised eyebrow, a finger raised to the sky and, at most, two fleeting moments of resonance. In support, it's only Basil Rathbone as a stuck-up Tybalt and Reginald Denny's Benvolio who impress.

It's a film with dips, then: troughs filled with broad comedy and lazy hamming. But boy are those peaks mighty: Cukor and William H. Daniels' often masterful compositions - Romeo lit silver as he plays to the balcony, Juliet "dead" beneath a transparent veil - and Shakespeare's glorious words and intensely moving scenarios performed to perfection by two extraordinary actors.

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