From a World War II Macbeth to a Harlem-based Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare has been boldly “opened up” before. 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 on a navigation exercise, the eight cadets who remain behind with no faculty on campus are ordered to follow their usual classwork and physical-fitness routines. But as the English Lit class studying Romeo and Juliet falls under Shakespeare’s spell, the two classmates reading the leads begin to live their roles as star-crossed lovers for real. Using the actual text in a scaled-down version of the play’s tumult, writer-director Alan Brown embellishes old-world romance with YouTube videos and indie-rock tunes, providing 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 family feuds, young plebes worry about demerits. 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 and pier-ced with his shaft to soar, under love’s heavy burden do I sink”—takes on a homoerotic meaning.
Spotting another lonely cadet in gym shorts, Romeo swoons: “Did my heart love till now? Forswear its sight for I n’er saw true beauty ‘til this night!” It’s the cry of a boy on the verge of risking his popularity to come out of the closet. 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 upperclassman. Every “prick” and “pump” has a hidden emphasis, as it did in Shakespeare’s day, when men played all of the women onstage.
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’s 1968 version.
The acting, by a uniformly polished cast of terrific New York actors, 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). Matt Doyle, as cadet Glenn Mangan, makes for a perfect pink-nippled, gooey-eyed Juliet. What 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 reduced 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. Pvt. 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.
Re-shaping the play into a 90-minute narrative, the Capulet-Montague feud is no longer clear. Love is all, as it was in As You Like It and other Shakespearean plays that eroded 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.
Private Romeo (R) ★★★★☆