After the success of Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann was a rising star in Hollywood, and he crafted a follow-up project: A modernized take on the Shakespeare tragedy read by high school freshmen across the entire English-speaking planet, Romeo and Juliet. Whereas Strictly Ballroom’s cast had been made up almost entirely of unknowns, Luhrmann pulled in a seasoned cast for his sophomore effort. In the lead roles, he recruited two teen heartthrobs, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
Simply calling the 1996 Romeo and Juliet (stylized “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”) “a modernized take” is, of course, a gross understatement and simplification. Luhrmann’s film is almost experimental in its stylistic and conceptual extremes, while still conveying as a coherent piece of pop art.
Romeo + Juliet is built on two radical, intertwined cinematic visions. The first is in the setting. Luhrmann has transplanted Shakespeare’s play with large chunks of original, Elizabethan dialogue into a sleazy mid-90s Florida town. Characters look, dress, and carry themselves as if they are Clinton-era South Beach trash, but the words coming out of their mouths are phrases like “thou wilt not be but sworn my love” and “they pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair” and “a plague o’ both your houses.”
The literalism of the adaptation and the subsequent juxtaposition it creates is of such dissonance that it overwhelms the rest of the movie. It never, for a minute, begins to feel natural. In fact, it calls attention to itself more and more each scene, the visual cues going out of its way to highlight these adaptational decisions: Guns are named after swords; marriage proposals negotiated with parents; sleeping potions are quaffed; etc. Moments feel so out of place with the 1990s, the artifice so attention-grabbing, that you’re always aware of exactly what it’s trying to do.
Does this make it bad? Not inherently, no. It’s not a new idea that a modern setting and veneer can revitalize classic literature, even if you’re acutely aware of that very act of adaptation. (Just look at the small wave of films this inspired: Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, etc.) There has to be some concession to make it feel like modern life. In the case of Romeo + Juliet, which concedes nothing, the unyielding approach is a bit stifling.
Romeo + Juliet, nonetheless, works as an energetic and inventive film thanks to the second central idea of Romeo + Juliet: its groundbreaking audiovisual language.
Luhrmann toyed with breakdown of naturalism in Strictly Ballroom, letting scenes transform into classical dance segments without quite ever puncturing the diegesis and becoming a “musical.” But Strictly Ballroom was hardly preparation for what Luhrmann and his team would do next.
Romeo + Juliet movie invents a bold new visual texture, which is hard to describe succinctly. Everything is busy and colorful and heavily supplemented with cinematic tricks: quick-zooms, freeze frames, color tints, jittery effects, captions, etc. The camera aggressively and viscerally swoops in for close-ups on characters. There’s some play with space and perspective. Compositions have unique timbres and moods — for example, the ethereal haze of a presumed-dead Juliet, lit by candles, and the all-consuming physical and emotional submersion of an underwater true-love kiss.
The most striking aspect of it all is the editing, though, credited to Jill Bilcock. The editing tempo is hyperactive and heart racing, almost headache-inducing. The mission is not to create a seamless continuity, but to impressionistically capture the experience of a scene: Quick snapshots of the glittering heat of Verona’s streets, or the sweaty throngs of people at the Capulets’ masquerade, or the unhinged grief and anger of Romeo after Mercutio’s death.
What this adds up to is an adaptation that captures the spirit and emotion of the play’s melodramatic tragedy, but with a fresh, hyper-modern vitality. If Shakespeare ever seemed crusty and stiff, this is the antidote.
The acting is a bit tough to evaluate. Nearly everyone is essentially speaking a foreign language, like ABBA singing a pop song in English they learned phonetically. DiCaprio and Danes have phenomenal, goo-goo eye chemistry. They’re both magnetic, and completely believable when they can’t keep their hands off each other. The heartbreak is believable too (a good warm up for Leo with Titanic just around the corner). On the other hand, neither really seems to properly understand or connect with the centuries-old words they’re saying, which disrupts the sense that these are real teenagers.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better on the line recitation front; the notable exception is Pete Postlethwaite as Fr. Laurence, who really does feel teleported in from hundreds of years ago.
It’s a huge, talented cast, and some of the performances take real swings: Harold Perrineau, in particular, chews up the scenery around him as Mercutio, playing the characters homoeroticism and capriciousness turned up to 11.
Ultimately, Romeo + Juliet provides such a strong flavor that it can be alienating. Yet the overall emotional impact, not to mention the power of specific moments and images (such as the meeting across the fishtank or lovely, reworked balcony scene), make it a worthwhile and effective film. The hyperactive visual style also serves a template for a style that both Luhrmann and other directors would use to toy with the medium in the years that followed.
- Review Series: Baz Luhrmann Retrospective