Romeo + Juliet
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Craig Pearce (screenplay) William Shakespeare (play)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau
There is a wild apprehension people have towards big screen adaptations of their favorite literary works. Scratch that. There is a wild anticipation people have towards big screen adaptations of their favorite literary works, that is, until they are released. After that, they never quite seem to live up to expectations set out for them. People are always marginally disappointed when something doesn’t play out on the screen like it did in their head.
Now take something as properly defined as Shakespeare, or even better, his most iconic Romeo and Juliet. In most ways it is already perfectly visualized with no help from its theatrical medium. It’s a story everyone has read or scene— indirectly or directly if it’s fair to count the pieces it influenced— and one everyone already understands. An adaptation should be pretty straightforward, right?
Not in the hands of a visionary, like say… Baz Lurhmann. His take on the classic story Romeo + Juliet is a complete revisualization, a modernization and a film that leaves plenty to discuss. Whether the film succeeds or not, depends on one’s appetite and tolerance for cinematic appreciation and artistic exploration.
Romeo + Juliet keeps the same rhetoric and blank verse style and only has minor alterations in plot and thematic emphasis. Obvious differences hit the viewer right away. This version isn’t set in same Shakespearian Verona we’re familiar with, instead this “In fair Verona” is in some post-Communist Miami, San Diego or Latin American city where racial integration is more common and baggy Hawaiian shirts are still cool. Instead of feuding families, these are rival business moguls and instead of swinging swords, there are guns and bullets manufactured by “Sword.”
If Luhrmann stopped there, Shakespeare critics and fans might be happy to what probably seemed like an MTV-style punk wars flick. But stylization runs further through the veins of the film, creating pulse-building sequences through clever cinematography and editing that enrich both the setting and affect of the film. The first six minutes never loses a second in capturing the audiences’ interest and demanding their reaction, something reading the play in ninth grade English class could never accomplish. The visuals are aids, not distractions in this case. In some parts of the film, the mise en scene is a distraction from the heavy dialogue — consider the annoyance of Leonardo DiCaprio always seen in some form of pool, rain or water similar to Taylor Lautner’s shirtless reputation of today.
Careful decision-making in close-up shots and long shots with the action far away are clever tactics for expanding the possibilities of Shakespeare’s original medium. With sound and guns, things become much more intense and real.
An introduction to Romeo placed as a near-silhouette on the Verona beach while Radiohead’s “Talkshow Host” burns in the background borders on pandering, but its just too fucking cool to give up on, even fifteen years later. Music becomes important throughout, both in making the film current (rest assured, all this time later it still fits) and making it a youth sensation.
At the time, Romeo + Juliet earned a slew of MTV movie awards, yet simultaneously nabbed Academy nominations for Sound, Editing and Cinematography— all appropriate.
Faults in the film lie within some of its overblown acting (Tybalt’s lame cowboy more than Mecruitio’s drag queen, actually), its underdeveloped romantic relationship and overpowering mise en scene, which often steals the scene from some of Shakespeare’s important and more elegant dialogue.
This brings up questions about the films intentions. Does it respect Shakespeare’s words, or does sacrifice it to embellish in its own visual beauty? With the 3D filming of The Great Gatsby reuniting Leo and Baz, certainly similar discussions of literary adaptations in cinema can be expected.