Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo
Romeo and Juliet is probably the Shakespearean play most familiar to modern audiences due to the fact that so many schools are determined to ram the angsty, star-crossed teen lovers down high-schoolers throats, mainly I suspect, as an object lesson on how NOT to get stupidly infatuated and ruin your lives…
It has been re-made countless times (most recently in 2013) but certain film versions stand-out for their more unique vision of the Bard’s tale. West Side Story meshed Romeo & Juliet into a street-gang themed musical, while Franco Zefferilli’s lush version leveraged a bevy of 14th century locations and teen-aged stars. Baz Luhrmann’s frentic, janky, modern-day revision of the play brings Shakespeare into the crux of the MTV generation.
Romeo + Juliet is set in the fictional location of Verona Beach, a hip, decrepit-looking beachfront city where “Two households, both alike in dignity” face off as corporate and familial rivals. The Capulets and the Montagues may be rival crime families, hiding their illegal activities under a number of fronts, but the story doesn’t explicitly note that fact. The tone is set from the start with the famous introduction intoned by a TV anchorwoman, accompanied by staccato repetitions that seem designed more to scream out how different this version promises to be, rather than for any useful purpose.
Romeo (played by a very young looking 21-year old DiCaprio) is one of the Montague boys –most of them a set of beefy, frat house-looking group of “brahs” that are intended to contrast sharply with the more Latino/Hispanic Capulets. After a gas station altercation between Benvolio (Romeo’s cousin) and Tybalt (played with hissing enthusiasm by John Leguizamo) turns violent, the warring families are warned to hold the peace by Captain Prince, the Chief of Police.
Enter Mercutio (Harold Perrineau, more recently known for his portrayal of the gang leader Pope on Sons of Anarchy), who talks the lovelorn Romeo and the Montagues into crashing a costume ball being given by the Capulets. He also slips Romeo some Ecstasy. Romeo wanders about like an extra from a Hunter S. Thompson book until he encounters Juliet (a luminous Claire Danes) and is instantly smitten. There is the requisite back-and-forth, some threats from Tybalt, a quick stolen kiss and the famous balcony scene when Romeo sneaks back onto the estate and proclaims his love.
This is quickly followed by the arrangement of a secret marriage between the two teens, an effort that goes somewhat awry when Tybalt intervenes and attacks Romeo. Mercutio steps in and, inevitably as one of the more interesting characters in the movie, is mortally wounded in his intervention. He curses both families and dies. Romeo, in a fury, chases down Tybalt in a car, crashes into Tybalt’s vehicle and then shoots Tybalt dead on the church steps.
Romeo, exiled from the city, stews, while Juliet frets and eventually decides (with the help of Father Lawrence, played by Pete Postlethwaite) to fake her own suicide via a drug rather than be forced into another marriage. A message is sent to Romeo but, alas, the message goes astray. Romeo finds his love “dead”, and promptly kills himself with poison (no spoiler warning here – it’s been 400 years). Juliet wakes, finds Romeo dead, picks up his Dagger 9mm, and shoots herself. End scene. Call the coroner.
Romeo + Juliet certainly earns points for style – any movie that can sneak an iconic Prince song into a choir scene has all the requisite style points you can ever need – but it is uneven as a film at best. Baz Luhrmann’s direction is often jarring, over-saturated and chaotic, which doesn’t lend itself following the fast-moving romance or the Shakespearean dialogue. The tempo of the film is offsetting and, bluntly, feels discordant. The best scenes are the few that he slows down in.
This off-tempo sense also exhibits itself in the cadence and style of speech in the film. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the language conversational at points, an attempt that interrupts the flow and pattern of the dialogue. It’s particularly notable when you contrast it with the more polished and traditional cadence of Shakespearean trained actors who can capture the rhythm and flow of the longer, archaic language. The staccato interruptions, irregular pauses and copious shouting make the play actually harder to follow.
The acting, by contrast, is mostly solid, one of Romeo’s cousins excepted… “I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.” He played this scene about as exaggerated as it possibly could be. As this is very early in the film, my assumption is that the director was deliberately "stage-setting" in his usual patented style. It would be interesting to see how this movie concept might have played out in the hands of a more subtle and nuanced director.
Both DiCaprio and Claire Danes provide very solid portraits of the two lovers. Claire Danes in particular plays Juliet as a wide-eyed, flirty, very typical teenage girl who finds herself pulled into this incandescent relationship. The Nurse (Miriam Margolyes) is particularly good and under-appreciated in a role usually played much more broadly as comic relief. Strangely enough, a massively young Paul Rudd pops up as Juliet’s arranged groom Paris.
One of the other very neat ideas the film uses is to re-brand the handguns, rifles and other firearms used by both families as variously Rapier 9mm’s, Dagger .45’s, a LongSword rifle and so forth. This is a clever and timely switch that is used to great effect as the preening young ruffians of both families parade about waving customized handguns and uttering archaic threats “Part, fools! Put up your swords. You know not what you do!”
Romeo + Juliet. Not bad. Not great by any measure, but an interesting take on an oft-told, oft-performed piece of work.