Read a review and overview of Baz Luhrmann’s classic Romeo and Juliet 1996.
Romeo and Juliet is arguably the classic romantic story of all time, so it’s little wonder that Shakespeare’s play has been reproduced on the silver screen so many times. In 1996 Baz Luhrmann’s version was released to great critical acclaim, grossing close to $150 million, and receiving nominations for a host of awards around the world.
Although Lurmann’s Romeo and Juliet is the familiar timeless story of the ‘star crossed’ lovers it’s updated to a modern Veronese suburb – Verona Beach – where the teenage members of the Montague and Capulet families carry guns, and when the trouble starts they shoot at each other without restraint. The film retains the original Shakespeare dialogue, but the text is pruned and the story is told mainly through vivid and exciting cinematic images.
Shakespeare’s plays have a timeless quality and have been comfortably interpreted by four hundred years of producers and actors to present them as relevant to their time and the fashions of the time. This film loses nothing of the play’s integrity while catering for the modern teenager’s taste for fast-moving, spectacular visual and musical effects. The music is loud and the camerawork offers what the most popular action thrillers do, driving the audience through the story, hurtling the ill-fated lovers towards their doom.
Luhrmann has created a world in which the extreme wealth of the two families is evident in the pastimes, dress, and lifestyle of their younger generation. They wear expensive outfits, drive fancy sports cars and wield big shiny guns. The fight at the beginning of the play becomes a spectacular gunfight at a petrol station and the party at the Capulet mansion is a sumptuous rock-star style bash. Deafening pop music plays throughout.
The difficulty Luhrmann has to confront is the need to marry his cinematic vision with the language of Shakespeare, and he does this admirably. The key is the convincing way in which the actors speak the lines. Shakespeare’s blank verse iambic pentameter was written as a way of imitating the rhythms of natural speech and all of the actors exploit that quality in the poetry to create that effect. DiCaprio, who has gone on to become a major film star, shows that early promise in this movie. He has an instinctive grace and creates a Romeo whose gut-wrenching emotion is entirely convincing. Danes’ yearning Juliet is exactly right for a strong determined young girl caught up in this powerful emotional swirl. Paul Sorvino as Capulet presents a convincing modern tycoon who can’t understand any form of dissent from his authority and Pete Postlethwaite’s hippy guru, Friar Laurence, is a joy.
Anyone coming to Shakespeare for the first time will enjoy this film, but there is an extra dimension of enjoyment for those who know the play. Some of the character motivations are obscured by Luhrmann’s desire to realise his cinematic vision but knowledge of the play would make everything clear. This movie is a rich addition to the canon of Romeo and Juliet films.