Retrospective: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

I wanted to review one of the Red Curtain Trilogy by Baz Luhrmann so I thought that the one most people have seen might be a good start. Most English students in Britain are likely to have seen this movie as it’s a really accessible entrance to Shakespeare, modernizing the classic Romeo and Juliet to a Los Angeles-like city. This was a rather controversial choice as it differed so far from a classical version, such as the previously best known 1960s film by Franco Zeffreili which is very traditional.

Although Romeo + Juliet is modernised and filled with pop songs from the 90s it stays  very closely to the plot and dialogue of the play. What is very impressive is the film making and the very modern style in which it is shot, making it a fascinating movie. As the recent Ralph Fiennes film adaptation of Coriolanus shows, there is a market for modernizing Shakespeare also seen in movies such as O which modernizes Othello to an American high school and even 10 Things I Hate About You which is based from Taming Of The Shrew.

Shot of T.V reporter talking about the latest gangland fighting on an old T.V in a place they call  ‘fair Verona’ but you can see nothing fair in this corrupt place, ruled by two families with a police force not powerful enough to deal with either family.

So starts the movie. By making the narrator a reporter you have the bleeding edge representation of the MTV generation symbolizing how knowledge is filtered through the TV. The next big changes occur through making both the houses of Capulet and Montague big companies which loath each other and direct rivals in a seedy beach city which feels like a cross between Rio and Los Angeles. The audience see jump cuts of the place and you quickly realise what sort of a place it is: a violent, divided setting with lots of firepower at the disposal of individuals.

You pull out your pistol, ripping it from your waist band, aiming down on the sights. This argument has got all serious. All you wanted was a bit of gas. You remember what your father said about no more gunfights, no fights with Capulet’s but all around you see signs to let lose your aggression. You see guns everywhere. You see your kinsman hit while running. You see fuel everywhere. You wonder why not? What’s the worst that could happen? You’re thrown by an explosion and while flying you wonder what’s happened to your lovelorn cousin…

The movie takes a very clean slate approach to its modernization. The variety of swords are replaced by an array of pistols. The Montague’s and Capulet’s and various other characters travel around in modified sports cars and the Prince of Verona is a police captain with his own helicopter and sharpshooters. This is quite dizzying for those familiar with the great bard’s text as you wonder where the original story remains other than the Shakespearean verse. But really it’s just been modernised.

The film stars Leonardo Di Caprio as Romeo, before he was famous but still very pretty, Juliet (Clair Danes), Tybalt (John Leguizamo), the Father Lawrence (Pete Postlethwaite) and Mercutio (Harold Perrineau). This cast of new actors and old hands means it still feels like a fresh movie even after all these years. It is still the most approachable and proper Shakespeare movie ever made and it is filled with lots of great visual references from the delivery company being called Post Haste to the names of the guns: Sword 9mm, Rapier 9mm, Longsword.

Another one of my favourite aspects is the outfits. It feels right that Juliet should be dressed as an angel and Romeo as a knight in shining armour and they should meet by a tank. It works so well but it’s difficult to describe why it does. Both leads look older than the Zeffreili movie and the text which has Juliet at 13 and Romeo being mid 20s. Here the age difference is less and the relationship slightly different due to the modern setting and sensibilities but all the major scenes are there, with novel approaches such as Queen Mab being slang for an LSD type drug and the balcony being over a swimming pool. This is all filled with the hottest music from the mid-90s from the Cardigans, Mundy, and Radiohead. It gets the aggression of the text though the use of pathetic fallacy, especially with the death of Mercutio. Juliet’s father has something of the Corleone about him, especially when he beats the crap out of his daughter for refusing Paris.

You flick through the channels on your old set. You want to find the news. There has been the sound of helicopters, gunfights, cars racing away, screeching to a halt and you have given one of your last vials of poison to someone who looked desperate and very wet. What you remember while looking for any news channel is that he has a wound in his stomach and in pain and grief all over his face, even in the rain you can see tears. You feel inwardly guilty for pointing a shotgun at him, pretending you don’t have what he seeks. He throws his money at you; you relent and try to start talking to him, declaring its effectiveness like a snake oil salesman. He looks unconcerned and lost like someone who has seen the edge and is willing to leap to oblivion. You wish he would go quickly, hearing the sirens come closer with the distinct sound of helicopters coming nearer, knowing the charge for being unlicensed. He goes, thanking you which you find odd. You don’t find the news that night but the next day you see a funeral announcement and a picture you thought you’d never see. Ted Montague and Fulgencio Capulet, arm in arm, tears flowing like children and you see bodies under sheets and hear the great tale of Romeo and Juliet who in death unite their families in grief. You see a head shot at the end of the piece about Romeo and you recognise him and see what a pretty bride he was making. You’re wistful for your lost youth. You hope this will end the bloodshed so common criminals like yourself can operate, but you are not hopeful.

Retrospective By Harry Riedl


2 thoughts on “Retrospective: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

  1. I love this film! Even though it has a cheesey kind of twist to it, I think it really brings a modern vibe to the world. I think Luhrmann has did a great job of delievering such an amazing adaptation as it is not easy to please a lot of Shakespeare fans. Leonardo DiCaprio is such a talented actor and I think he fits really well as Romeo. Also, Claire Danes plays extremely well as a main role, despite her being only young at the time. Even though it’s difficult to adapt such a fabulous Shakespeare play, I love this film and think it is a great way to modernise the story. Such an amazing tragedy. One of Shakespeare’s best!

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