Dir. Alan Brown
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 98mins
Beginning in a class room where buff military cadets read William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a mocking tone as jokes are made the expense of those reading out the feminine roles. Very quickly the lines are blurred between reality and Shakespearean drama and Private Romeo quickly becomes just another modern day retelling of the bard’s most famous work. Such a concept could most definitely work as members of rival academies work to tear two young lovers apart, but simply rearranging the genders so as the entire cast are gay men doesn’t make a movie. Brown, who also wrote the screenplay, appears welcome to merely let Shakespeare’s words work on their own without any of his own input.
Such are the perils of casting such routinely good-looking actors that they eventually all begin to look like one another. It certainly doesn’t help that rarely seem to have any distinguishing features to help decipher who is a Capulet and who is a Montague. Furthermore, as if the entire film is just one big drama class role-playing exercise, all the actors are credited as “Josh” or “Sam”, rather than the “Romeo”, “Juliet” and “Nurse” that they recite to each other. Sadly, the military academy setting is nothing more than a fetish check list – military, uniforms, locker rooms, high school jocks, authoritative, etc – and isn’t used to its full potential. One would think that setting a gay romance within the walls of a place of education and warfare would be ripe for deconstructing more pertinent issues. Unfortunately, the film fails to navigate any true ideas about homosexuality within school systems, within domains of cocky brute masculinity, and within a private world that has been plagued by “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” for far too long. Private Romeo really is just a bunch of pretty men reciting Shakespeare on a school campus and it’s hard to see what’s so special about that.
Alan Brown has taken much of Shakespeare’s words verbatim and placed them within the mouths of these young men of lithe bodies and boyish looks. The performances are all fine, although it would have been nice to have seen them act without the restrictions of language placed upon them. Only Seth Numrich makes much of a lasting impression as the love struck Sam/Romeo. Perhaps it’s because in the right light he looks like a swoony Chris Evans that I responded to him, but maybe he’s just a fine actor. Mimicking the camera style of a more restrained Dogme film, and occasionally lit as if through a lens of honey, Private Romeo frequently appears as handsome as its cast, but it again comes back to Brown’s reluctance to use Shakespeare’s text as a jumping off point for something bigger. Teenage love is epic and dangerous, powerful and all encompassing, and yet everybody here just seems to be going about their business is their khaki sweats and perfect skin.
The scenes of romance between Numrich and Matt Doyle’s Glenn/Juliet frequently tip into tender, but their love fails to grow by the film’s end, which takes great liberties with the original text. Their initial make cute is actually just that, a rather sweet moment of cute flirting and the two are well matched. Perhaps the fact that both appeared on stage together in Broadway’s production of War Horse helped that, and the very stagey aesthetic of Brown’s film maybe aided even further.
While I have no doubt that some audiences will find the idea of Shakespeare done gay as a particularly novel twist – it’s certainly better than the last one I can recall, the atrocious Were the World Mine – but it lacks something that makes it inherently cinematic. The original text was used far more effectively by Baz Luhrmann in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, and it is given little reason to be revisited here for any reason other than to say a gay version of Romeo and Juliet with the original text exists. Fleeting and weird YouTube scenes of pop lip syncing fail to add any zest, and instead just confuse. As it stands Private Romeo is a disappointing, but frivolously gratuitous, high school drama production. It deserves better. C-