'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.

Eleanor Barkhorn: What Did Shakespeare Sound Like?
Jennie Rothenberg Gritz: Shakespeare Unleashed
John Katzman, Andy Lutz, and Erik Olson: Would Shakespeare Get Into Swarthmore?

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!').

I should add that while it's not ugly, it isn't particularly pretty to look at either, nor does there seem to be any real benefit from the 3D effects (a ticket for the regular version was about half the price, and I couldn't see how the 3D Experience doubled the value).

So I'm struggling to think of who would want to watch it. Is it as beautiful to look at, as witty, charming and heartbreaking as Up? A springboard into the world of Shakespeare for kids while entertaining adults, like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet or Shakespeare in Love? No, no, and no.


Touchstone Pictures

If it was a rainy weekend morning, and I wanted to take my nephew to the movies, have him be entertained by a lot of gnomes running around doing things stone figurines don't normally do, then I suspect it wouldn't do any permanent damage to his development in life—but equally I doubt it would provoke a sudden fascination with Shakespeare.

Early on, Juliet is given a pampering before her first date with Gnomeo, and masking tape is used to wax her legs and upper lip; she later gleefully relays to her frog friend Nanette the size and pointiness of Gnomeo's hat (the mark of true gnomic masculinity). Then as gnome Benny trespasses into the woman's house, he somehow ends up inside one of her old, oversized, grey-ing bras... I suppose these vague sexual references are being dropped to entertain the older members of the audience, but we found them just plain weird and slightly disturbing. Judging by my companion's face, this is not a date movie either.

It wasn't Shakespeare meets Shrek, it was Shakespeare meets a B-movie Toy Story, with gnomes. I'd love to have been at the pitch meeting.

As I left the cinema and walked home in the rain, alone, (she had to wash her hair, apparently), I tried to decide if I was being a grumpy Shakespeare-loving cynical purist, and actually the film was a light-hearted piece of fun that doesn't do any real harm. But perhaps that's the worst offense.

I like adaptations of Shakespeare. He often adapted well-known stories and so the plots of his plays would have been very familiar to his audience—the fall of Troy would have been a bedtime story, the legend of Romeo and Juliet a fairy tale, and A Midsummer's Night's Dream, with its forest-bound love story featuring a man turned into an ass by tricksy fairies, a pre-Brother's Grimm fable.

His plays are beautiful and universal and 400 years on we still want to retell them, with new and different backstories that can shed a fresh light on them, and perhaps turn them on to a new generation.

Ashbury, in the same interview, talked of how West Side Story, Bonnie and Clyde, Grease, Twilight, Avatar, Titanic, and Brokeback Mountain are all Romeo & Juliet stories, "So why not do it with garden gnomes. Maybe I'll, I dunno, do it with orangutans next time."

The rest, is stony silence.