North V South


Reviewed by: Luke Shaw

North v South
"It’s no good having a twisting tale of gangland betrayal if every plot point is reiterated."

Many would argue that part of Shakespeare’s strength is the resilience of his stories. They can survive adaptation because their dramatic core is so brilliantly realised. Romeo And Juliet is a timeless classic, adapted by the bard himself from a tapestry of prior italian works. Star-crossed lovers separated by warring families is just too incendiary a topic to ignore, it seems. British director Steven Nesbit decides to take this story and place it in rainy old Britain, capitalising on the age old quarrels between the North and the South.

Instead of lazily relying on direct analogues here, he takes core themes and characters, and hashes out his own gangland drama. Gone are Benvolio, Mercutio, and the majority of the Montagues and Capulets. Only Romeo (Terry) and Juliet (Willow) truly remain - portrayed by Elliot Tittensor and Charlotte Hope - but by setting itself over the space of a few weeks, the abrupt party meeting and whirlwind romance is abandoned. The warring gangs agree to meet and attempt to strike a truce, upset by the extremely uncouth and fiery Gary Little (Brad Moore) unknowingly killing the best friend of the Northern boss: this film’s interpretation of Tybalt killing Mercutio.

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The changes don’t end there, with the Mercutio proxy’s child being brought in and trained up as an apprentice killer by the Northern gang’s femme fatale, Penny (Freema Agyeman). The inclusion of cross-dressing hitman for hire Gustave is the cherry on the cake, and Nesbit is definitely going for a fresh modern re-invention here, a bold move but something that helps inject some much needed energy into the tale.

The camerawork is stylish, and the two gangs are defined well. The South are posh and preening, the North are swarthy and grubby, both are extremely fond of pouring forth torrents of expletives. If this had the energy of Baz Luhrman’s LA gangland take on R&J, Nesbit might have been on to a winner, but there are a few egregious missteps which really hurt this attempt at a fresh take.

First and foremost is the breaking of the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’. Our modern Romeo narrates the majority of the film, and Tittensor makes him a likeable lead, but it scuppers the twists and turns of the story. It’s no good having a twisting tale of gangland betrayal if every plot point is reiterated. It’s an understandable inclusion because of the attempt to put a unique spin on events, but it wouldn’t be needed if the lines were drawn a little earlier. With defter scripting we wouldn’t need to be shown how the North are a family, and how much they earn through extortion, especially not two-thirds of the way through the film when such a revelation is redundant and perhaps even remiss.

It’s an admirable attempt to recast a classic tale, but a lack of conviction in the rewiring of plot threads ultimately becomes its downfall. The film shows it can be bold: a campy Bond-style chase between a car and gyrocopter, and a Leon-style segment where Penny trains a child to kill are fun and enthusiastically rendered ideas. If the rest of the film had this kind of chutzpah, and wasn’t afraid to break the mould with a little more swagger, it could have been a gritty treat, and when you’re so bold as to change certain fundamentals of the story, you might as well go the whole hog.

Reviewed on: 21 Jun 2015
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A gangland Romeo and Juliet.
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EIFF 2015

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