William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is... or so they say... the most romantic love story ever told. Unless you're gay, in which case it all seems somewhat silly: Some dude named Romeo meets this girl, Juliet, from a rival clan, and -- despite the bad blood between their families -- falls instantly in love. Honestly, "West Side Story" did it better, even if it's true that "West Side Story" was just an updated musical version of Shakespeare's play.
Filmmaker Alan Brown had the brilliant idea of taking an old custom from the days of the Bard himself -- having all the play's roles, male and female alike, filled by men -- and then transposing the play to a modern military academy. The result is "Private Romeo," which is destined to set a high-water mark in gay cinema. Suddenly, the play that had 16-year-old girls swooning in high school is a modern gay movie that will transfix and delight contemporary audiences. For possibly the first time, gay men will really "get" the play's power, because in this film, the play speaks directly to us.
Brown provides something of a context for understanding how the transposed play works. The cadets at McKinley Military Academy are studying "Romeo and Juliet" in class. They read their lines aloud before their instructor, but when one of the more popular cadets falls in love with another of the academy's enrollees, the play's dialogue serves to express the riot of passion, anger, and jealousy that the cadets -- all of them teenagers -- are feeling.
The play's antiquated language is leavened by the actors' performances and by the setting. Instead of swords, we see Mercutio and Tybalt thrown down with bare knuckles; neither of them dies, but the bruises, broken bones, and demerits they sustain translate to a rough equivalent in the heated, adolescent, and hyper-masculine argot of their status as cadets.
No change of gender is used to accommodate the reality that "Juliet" is a young man, but we go along with this; it's a matter of poetic license, and there's just enough modern American English thrown in to suggest that these are not the exact lines that the boys are speaking (except in cases when they are quoting the play in a mocking manner), but rather, these lines convey what it is they are feeling in different scenes.
The classic "Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" scene, for instance, doesn't take place in a courtyard or involve a balcony. Instead, the boys meet in a classroom in the dead of night. They speak Shakespearean text for the same reason that, say, the Russians in "The Hunt for Red October" speak English. We understand that the language they use is a convention to make the characters understandable to our ears.
In this case, though, there's a clever inversion of familiar movie license, and it's used to cast what would otherwise be standard American jargon into Elizabethan English, the better to articulate the passions of the characters. (In any case, it's easier on the ears than endless reiterations of "Yo, dude!" and "Boo-yah!")
This is a timely film, given that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- the law that has kept gay and lesbian patriots from serving openly for the last 17 years -- is on its deathbed. There's no reason soldiers shouldn't fall in love; it's the consorting, or rather the fraternizing, that violates military policy. That's also the film's urgently contemporary undercurrent: Romeo might well be "banished" from the realm of the academy for fighting, but a deeper and thornier issue is whether he'd be willing to accept expulsion for the sake of love. If so, would that constitute a happy ending to Shakespeare's tragedy?
But happiness might be beside the point. After all, who wants to think about Romeo and Juliet as middle-aged, embittered, and discontent? Their appeal lies in their revels, defiant as they are, in love's first flush. What the play gives us is what youth is all about: The impulses of the moment, and the sweep of all overriding feelings, whether love, lust or rage.
Brown knows this and preserves all of it: The mad longing, the physical ache of desire, the simultaneous gnaw of discontent that accompanies intense fascination. The way this movie's "Romeo" chats up "Juliet" at their first meeting, complimenting his Livestrong bracelet and gradually working toward that inaugural kiss, carries an electrical charge strong enough to raise your hair, as well as your pulse. Brown has made the Bard's most famous romance meaningful on a gut level to a whole new, and long-neglected, audience.