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Non-Review Review: Romeo + Juliet

I’m baaaaack!

Is it a spoiler to say that Romeo + Juliet is a tragedy? You never know these days (I’m reminded of that great Simpsons’ quote, “It started out like Romeo & Juliet, but it ended up in tragedy” – I remember a few people being surprised when I laughed at that, leading me to explain the joke). Still, the opening monologue lays it all out on the table, as does the fact that Shakespeare only ever wrote comedies or tragedies – and this ain’t a comedy. Anyway, I must confess I hate the play, as I hate hell, all Montagues and thee. Okay, not really, but it was drilled into my head for my Junior Certificate exam (as Macbeth would be drilled into my head for the Leaving Certificate). I remember my English teacher – a very nice old lady, by all accounts – steadfastly refusing to show us the Baz Luhrmann ‘reimagining’ of the play. To this day I’m not sure if she made the right call. 

Get used to those wings...

Get used to those wings...

It is undoubtedly a good film. It is breathtakingly original. It’s fresh and it’s breezy. Which is – of itself – fantastic. We tend to forget that Shakespeare didn’t write for scholars or nerds, he wrote for the people. All his plays were relatively accessible (even resorting to what, at the time, would have constituted toilet humour). They were one of the most dominent forms of entertainment. Here Luhrmann manages to reintroduce that common touch that got lost amongst the ‘thees’ and ‘thousts’ and ‘thys’. I know kids who hated the text and all the costume drama versions they are forced to endure, but who love this particular production.

I’m not too hot on the play itself and can’t figure out why it has aged so well. It isn’t the worst of Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s nowhere near the best. Not even in the same area code. Though maybe I’m being contrary. And I’m not even sure it’s necessary to talk about the storyline or the writing when discussing this particular adaptation, as Luhrman’s energy isn’t his wit – it’s kenetic.

The adaptation sparkles. It never stops moving. It makes prime use of the transition from ancient Verona to modern Verona Beach with more than a few sly winks and nods (the brand of gun used is ‘Sword’, so the references to swords don’t seem out of place – naturally a ‘longsword’ is a shotgun). The feuding families become feuding gangs. Smart casting of the supporting players mean to we don’t notice Mercutio and Tybalt are using words that have fallen out the popular lexicon. We know what they mean and we appreciate the wit – and, if we don’t, there’s sure to be a sudden camera movement to explain it to us.

It’s worth dwelling on the casting. I have no idea how Luhrman put together an ensemble this good. Even the bit players are of the highest calibre (notably Paul Sorvino and Brian Dennehy as the heads of rival families, even though neither does anything) and there’s more than a few then-rising stars to be spotted (notably the leads but also a young Jamie Kennedy, a rare dramatic John Leguizamo and the always brilliant but never noticed Harold Perrineau). The cast is by no means the defining feature of the film, but it is a firm indicator of quality.

The real star of the show is Luhrmann himself. From his stunning camera work (and his recurring water imagery) through to his trademark ability to blend footage to soundtrack, he really puts his own stamp on proceedings, which is quite an accomplishment when you’re dealing with one of the most beloved romances in the English language. Everything from the opening gunfight (with a faux-Western theme accompanying the duel) to the chance encounter at the party (with a witty subversion of the famous ‘balcony scene’) to the stunning confrontation at the beach (with O Fortuna blaring), fits together so perfectly that Luhrman almost single-handedly seems to bring the long-dead play back to life.

Of course, it’s far from perfect. The movie scrambles the plot near the end a bit. Admittedly the original text didn’t provide the most convincing twist (a case of plague town ex machina), but it seems far more jumbled than it should be here. There’s also a few moments where the movie seems to be trying too hard or runs the risk of going too far over the top. Yes, the play is melodrama and Luhrman generally walks the line with care and consideration, but certain elements seem a little… less than subtle. Most notably when the Montague boys leave the Capulet party and collect their pistols and weapons from security on the way out. We get they’re gang members, but this is a high society function. There are a few other moments here and there, but nothing too startling.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the movie (and it is by no means a fatal one) is that it doesn’t seem to take itself seriously. There is a lot of flashy showmanship from the director and a wonderful synergy of sound and vision and a wide selection of really great performances, but is there anything underneath it all? I’m not sure. There is a lot more in the text than what appears or is related on screen – but I can’t fault Luhrmann for trying to open the movie up to a wider audience (who would normally scoff at the idea of watching a Shakespearean adaptation).

I had the good fortune to catch the last hour of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet around about the same time I saw this film, but it got me thinking about how the two films relate to each other – being released around the same time. Branagh similarly invests a life in the piece that is generally missing from the adaptations that they show kids in English class, and he also plays with the text (shifting the setting – albeit less drastically so) and usese more than a few fancy camera tricks to sidestep the language barrier between the Bard and modern audiences. However – perhaps because he is less fancy in his camera work, or maybe just because he gets Shakespeare better than… well, anyone – Branagh manages to keep the depth of the original work while creating a vibrant film in its own right.

That is just a comparison, not a criticism. Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet can hold its head high. It succeeds as a fantastic piece of cinema on the strength of its own merits rather than those stemming from the play. It is a damnsight more interesting than the vast majority of Shakespeare adaptations that you will see and it is quite something when a four-hundred year-old play can be revamped as one of the most original films in memory.

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Romeo + Juliet is directed by Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge) and stars Claire Danes (Terminator 3) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Departed) as the eponymous lovers, with support from Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas, Nixon), Brian Dennehy (Rambo: First Blood), John Leguizamo (Collateral Damage, The Pest), Harold Perrineau (Oz, Lost), Dash Mihok (Punisher: Warzone), Paul Rudd (I Love You Man, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Jamie Kennedy (Scream, Son of the Mask) and Pete Postlethwaite (The Usual Suspects, In The Name of The Father).

One Response

  1. You know, I always kinda-sorta-halfway liked “Romeo + Juliet.” Nobody does teen angst like Claire Danes, and Luhrman did a fairly spectacular job of reimagining what is my absolute least favorite Shakespeare play. The end, as acted by DiCaprio and Danes, just wrecks me every time. And the music is great. Certainly not highbrow cinema, but I don’t think people should write it off automatically they way they seem to do.

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