William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)

After the success of Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann was a rising star in Hollywood, and he carefully 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 rigid, uncompromising vision of bringing the play to modern America.

It’s a genuinely jarring thing to watch: Luhrmann has transplanted Shakespeare’s play into a sleazy mid-90s Florida town but kept the play’s dialogue intact. 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 uncompromising literalism of the text adaptation and the subsequent juxtaposition it creates in a trashy modern setting 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 the strangeness more and more each scene, the visual cues going out of its way to highlight bizarre adaptational decisions: Guns are named after swords; marriage proposals dramatically negotiated like we’re in feudal Europe; sleeping potions are quaffed like Merlin’s hanging around; etc. Moments feel so out of place with the 1990s, the artifice so attention-grabbing, that you’re always aware of exactly the swings that Luhrmann is taking rather than just experiencing it as a story.

Does this make it a bad adaptation, the way it refuses any sort of immersive naturalism? Not inherently, no. It basically trusts the audience to still engage with the material despite creating such a bizarre distance between the screenplay and the production.

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. There’s always going to be some spectrum of adaptation, some concession to a setting change: on one end, this film, on the other, a movie like 10 Things I Hate About You, which totally reworks The Taming of the Shrew so that it’s more original than source. To feel natural as a modern story, there has to be some concession. In the case of Romeo + Juliet, the unyielding approach is intellectually fascinating but undoubtedly stifling if you just want to organically experience a teen drama.

Despite the awkwardness of the film as a viewing experience, Romeo + Juliet works as an energetic and inventive film thanks to the bravura of its presentation, a gobsmacking audiovisual energy and gaudiness.

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.” (I’ve heard it called a “danceical.”) But Strictly Ballroom was hardly preparation for what Luhrmann and his team would do next.

Romeo + Juliet 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. Many of the compositions and mise en scenes have their own moods to them — 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 of the editing is not to create a seamless or immersive continuity, but to impressionistically capture the essence 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.

So despite its radical setting and visual flavor, Romeo + Juliet is better than any other rendition of the story in capturing the spirit and emotion of the play’s melodramatic tragedy, which it infuses 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, which is of course a key part of their performance. 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 like a person teleported in from hundreds of years ago to mid-90s Florida.

It’s a huge, talented cast, and some of the performances are over-the-top: Harold Perrineau, in particular, chews up the scenery around him as Mercutio, turning the character’s homoeroticism and capriciousness up to 11. It ultimately works given how maximal the rest of the film is.

Ultimately, Romeo + Juliet provides such a strong flavor and rigid take on transplanting its language to a modern setting that it can be alienating. Yet the overall emotional impact of the film, not to mention the terrifically sweeping power of its best moments and images (e.g., the meeting across the fishtank and the lovely, reworked balcony scene), make it a worthwhile and effective film. The hyperactive visual style also serves a template for a fresh new visual style that both Luhrmann and other directors would leverage in the years that followed.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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