'Gnomeo & Juliet': A Tragic Take on Shakespeare's Tale of Woe

An expert on the Bard goes to see the latest film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. He's not impressed.


Touchstone Pictures

Never was there a tale of more woe...

If you spend years of your life acting and writing about Shakespeare, you might find yourself in a similar position to the one I am in now.

I'm sitting in a cinema with a bit of a frump on. The Atlantic has asked me to review this film, and I like this magazine, I think it's cool, and like most people, the schoolchild inside of me wants to be associated with cool things.

But GNOMEO & JULIET? This is the film whose production company, as a PR wheeze, brought thousands of little mobile-phone-and-briefcase-wielding gnomes to one of London's busiest train stations, much to the surprise of east London commuters.

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Seeing as it's Valentine's weekend and this is an adaptation of the greatest love story ever told, I've brought a date. She likes Shakespeare too, and I persuaded her it might be fun in a Shakespeare meets Shrek kind of way.

It's in 3D, so when we turn to talk to each other our 3D glasses crash together. A mid-movie smooch is looking unlikely.

We open on a gnome in front of a red theatre curtain. He says: "The story you are about to see has been told before. A lot. Many times. But we will do it differently..."

This much is true. I watched an interview with the film's director Kelly Ashbury, who states that the first two acts are 'beat for beat' the same as Shakespeare before it veers off. And certainly, we meet two households in Stratford-upon-Avon, both alike in dignity, with rival gnome collections in their back gardens. When the elderly single male and female bickering neighbors leave their house every day, the gnomes come alive and engage in their age-old red versus blue feud and drag-race lawnmowers. One day blue Gnomeo bumps into red Juliet in a nearby garden, they fall in love, are separated, Gnomeo engages in an argument with a statue of Shakespeare (voiced by Patrick Stewart) over whether a happy ending is better than a tragic one, and then it meanders around until it stops, happily ever after.

Gnomeo and Juliet has a stellar cast of voices, ninja gnomes, er, music by Elton John, and, um... I'm sorry. It's no good. I tried to like it, I really did. But it was, by turns, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, cheap, and dull, with jokes about women, gays, and foreigners that I thought we'd done with decades ago.

There are some okay gags in it: a laptop computer used to order a new lawnmower has a glowing banana on its cover; there's more gnome jokes than you can think of, ('rest in pieces' and 'bless her to bits' when a dead gnome is remembered), not to mention a fair few Shakespeare in-jokes (as Juliet tries to keep a dog out of her garden she shouts 'Out! Out!' just before the owner can be heard crying 'Damn Spot!').

Presented by

Ben Crystal is the co-author of Shakespeare's Words (Penguin 2002) and The Shakespeare Miscellany (Penguin 2005) and the author of Shakespeare on Toast-- Getting a Taste for the Bard (Icon, 2008). More

Ben Crystal is an actor and writer. He co-wrote Shakespeare's Words (Penguin 2002) and The Shakespeare Miscellany (Penguin 2005) with his father, David Crystal, and his first solo book, Shakespeare on Toast--Getting a Taste for the Bard (Icon, 2008), attempts to make Shakespeare's works accessible without dumbing them down, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Educational Writer of the Year Award. He regularly gives talks about the Bard and runs workshops on performing Shakespeare around the world. His latest book Sorry, I'm British! was published by Oneworld in 2010. He lives in London and online at www.bencrystal.com

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