Much as I like the films of his that I have seen, Baz Luhrmann has always struck me as rather a narcissist. The inclusion of his name giving ownership of a title (Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, for example) is perhaps telling in this regard. But it is noticeable that on this disc it is not the Aussie auteur’s name that appears above the title – even he dare not take credit above The Bard. But, of course, there is more to this title than that. It tells us that however many trademark flashy camera moves, and pounding rock tracks are included – this is meant to be a faithful retelling of the original play. Of course, whether is actually it faithful or not, we will discover as we delve into this review.
AVForums readers are an educated bunch. I’m sure I have no need to recap the plot here. But for those who are maybe a little rusty on their six form education, I’d better briefly tell the tale. Romeo takes a tab of ecstasy (now, was that in the original play?) and goes to a party. There he meets a pretty young thing by the name of Juliet. The trouble is they both belong to different families – the Montagues and the Capulets. These two families are borderline Mafiosi – fighting a bloody feud through the streets of Verona beach. It is unheard of for members of the opposing family to fall in love – but Romeo and Juliet can’t help themselves. They formulate a plan, but the result is not exactly what they intended – and a tragedy is all but inevitable….
Baz Luhrmann’s approach here is nothing particularly new. He has modernised the world and the action of Shakespeare whilst maintaining the original dialogue and rhythms of the Bard. People shout in Iambic Pentameter whilst pointing ornate pistols and each other, the camera swooping in great arcs around the action. Yet although this has been done many times before, for some reason it feels fresh and unique in this film. I have thought long and hard about exactly why this is but I cannot honestly put my finger on it. I am not a big enough scholar of Shakespeare on film to be that informed – but if I had to take a guess I think the reason why it does seem so unique is twofold.
Firstly, the use of real Hollywood stars combined with British actors and their great experience of Shakespeare. You just don’t expect, for example, Leonardo Di Caprio to be going head to head with Pete Postlethwaite in Elizabethan English. But he does, and it is to his immense credit that it seems completely natural. The second reason is perhaps the marrying of the modern setting with modern filmmaking techniques. Luhrmann doesn’t just place the film in a modern setting, and then frame his shots in an old fashioned way. He completely immerses the story in the world in which it is set and does so in a very clever way which never seems forced. “Put down your swords” is the dialogue, when guns are being pointed, and as the camera pans round we see the guns are made by a company called Sword. Characters take ecstasy tabs, and transvestites dance provocatively. All this is framed by Luhrmann’s trademark camera flicks and tricks, and over the top style. The result is a heady concoction, for sure, but I believe on reflection that this is why it feels so fresh and unique.
But what of the performances? After all, Shakespeare is notoriously difficult to perform in the native language. The rhythms and words require verbal dexterity from the performers, whilst at the same time a certain effort is required from the audience to keep up with the words and to understand them. I have already mentioned that Luhrmann fills the screen with an eclectic range of performers – from DiCaprio and Danes through to the late lamented Pete Postlethwaite and Miriam Margulies. DiCaprio at the time was on the cusp of being a legend, but Titanic was a year or so away. At this stage he was still somewhat regarded as “just a pretty face”. Yet, even when he is on screen with seasoned Shakespearian veterans he more than holds his own – always appearing natural with the dialogue. Danes is slightly weaker than DiCaprio and at times it does seem like she is not as natural as he is with the dialogue – but she is the only slightly weak link in the film with all the other actors easily up to portraying the Bard faithfully.
However, if there is a weakness in the film then it is in the relationship between Romeo and Juliet. If you look at the famous Franco Zeferelli screen version, then the relationship between Romeo and Juliet absolutely sizzles, but here it seems like it is just a temporary teen fascination with tragic consequences. This may, of course, be deliberate. Surely part of the tragedy is that these two are young – can they really know that what they are feeling is a love worth dying for, rather than mere teenage infatuation? The answer is, of course, that they can’t – and Luhrmann decided to portray their relationship in this way. The trouble is, of course, that although this may be perhaps faithful to the original in some ways, for the viewer it does rather cause an irritation. Watching this version you never truly get a sense that you are watching anything other than two teenagers playing at what they think love is. As the central part of the film, this really does weaken the general story and make a mockery of the idea of a pure love overcoming a family feud. But although this is a choice that does place a slightly different angle on the play – I do feel that it gives the film a central weakness that undermines the rest. It is not a fatal weakness, and I do still enjoy the film, but it is certainly worth mentioning.
As for the kinetic, modern style – I have already mentioned this briefly. But those who are acquainted with Luhrmann’s style will find little to surprise them here. Jerky camera moves, jump-cuts, clever fades, and sweeping long shots all abound and do much to give the film its distinctive style. Luhrmann’s vision of Verona Beach is very distinctive, a city dominated by a gigantic statue of Christ – a juxtaposition of California and Rio De Janero. Luhrmann makes the environment his camera’s playground, swooping through the streets and swirling around spectacular buildings. It is all designed to keep the interest of the young, but even the slightly more seasoned viewer can appreciate the talent that he shows here. It is also fascinating as the film clearly provides a blueprint for Moulin Rouge – many of the techniques on show here are used to the max in that film, the third in the red curtain trilogy.
One final mention must go to the soundtrack. The film spawned two CD releases and a smash hit single, and features tracks from a wide range of artists including an exclusive track from Radiohead. It recognises the music as an essential part of the film and integrates it well, contributing to the modern mood of the piece whilst cleverly fitting in with the tale that is being told.
So, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is not a perfect film by any means. The central relationship between the two characters is a little too weak for that – we get no sense of the true passion of love. What we do get, though, is one of the most dynamic Shakespeare adaptations ever to hit the screen. Yes, Shakespeare has been “sexed up” and modernised before, but never quite to this effect. The style is kinetic and cool, the acting extremely competent, and the adaptation is clever. Despite the flaws this is definitely one worth having in the film collection.
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