• Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Romeo + Juliet' (1996) (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
Unlike a lot of pop culture from the '90s, Baz Luhrmann's glittery adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy has aged remarkably well.
Dave Crewe

3 Nov 2016 - 11:43 AM  UPDATED 3 Nov 2016 - 1:26 PM

Why It’s Important

A story as archetypal as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet demands adaptations. Each generation gets its own Romeo and Juliet, just as Shakespeare himself adapted his original play from an Italian novella and a long tradition of tragic romances before it. Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet, is neither the most recent nor – by any stretch – the most faithful adaptation of the play, but it is arguably the most successful. With a contemporary setting, soundtrack and a hot young cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, Luhrmann’s second feature captured the attention of audiences, grossing roughly $150 million internationally.

The critical reaction was mixed. America’s pre-eminent film critic, Roger Ebert, gave it two out of four stars, lamenting “the desperation with which it tries to 'update' the play and make it “relevant””. Australia’s chief critics were significantly more enthusiastic; on The Movie Show (see below), Margaret Pomeranz described the film as “simply stupendous”; David Stratton called it “a tremendously bold vision.” Each warranted it worthy of five stars. Alongside such pockets of critical praise came awards recognition: a Silver Bear for DiCaprio and an Alfred Bauer Prize for Luhrmann at Berlinale; a BAFTA Award for Best Director; Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Set Direction for Catherine Martin and Brigitte Broch.

Watch The Movie Show original ★★★★★ review of Romeo + Juliet


Perhaps most importantly, Romeo + Juliet remains an accessible and exhilarating adaptation almost two decades on. Its hyper-stylised contemporary setting – described by Luhrmann as a “hybrid of Miami and Brazil” – and kinetic cinematography - regularly characterised as “MTV-style filmmaking” – has aged remarkably well… unlike much of that era’s pop culture.

The film’s aggressively untraditional approach holds true to the populist spirit of the Bard, if not to the letter. Luhrmann’s intent was, in his own words, to tell “a Shakespearean story the way Shakespeare would have presented the material when he was at the Globe Theatre.” The dizzying blend of comedy, tragedy, romance and action – not to mention an extravagant style paying homage to Spaghetti Westerns, musicals, gang movies and melodrama in roughly equal measure – arguably hews closer to Shakespeare’s works than more classical approaches.

"The film’s aggressively untraditional approach holds true to the populist spirit of the Bard, if not to the letter."


What It’s Really About

The Standard Stuff

It’s critical to note that, for all the boldness of this adaptation, Luhrmann’s film is still fundamentally Romeo and Juliet. The play’s original dialogue – iambic pentameter and all – is retained, mostly word-for-word, although naturally large swathes are omitted to accommodate a two-hour running time. This is still a story about the impetuousness of young love; about the purity, the tragedy, the violence of love. This is still a story about the senselessness of cross-cultural/familial conflict, about the difficulty of asserting oneself in an individual within society. This is still a story about the relentless tide of fate, of the cosmic inexorability of tragedy.

There are countless resources available – on the internet and otherwise – detailing such themes. SparkNotes, the go-to reference for lazy English students, is as good a place to start as any. More interesting to examine is the fresh perspective Luhrmann brings to the material.

“Let's look back to a cinematic language where the audience participated in the form. Where they were aware at all times that they were watching a movie, and that they should be active in their experience and not passive. Not being put into a sort of sleep state and made to believe through a set of constructs that they are watching a real-life story through a keyhole. They are aware at all times that they are watching a movie.”

The above quote is from Luhrmann, discussing Strictly Ballroom in an interview with The Guardian, but it could just as easily apply to Romeo + Juliet (or, really, any of his films). Right from the opening frames, Luhrmann’s anti-realist aesthetic is impossible to ignore. After the opening narration – delivered by a television news anchor – we are launched into a vivid world of bright colours, quick cuts and broad comedy. Shakespeare’s wordplay is bracketed by goofy sound effects and overt acknowledgements of the adaptation’s artificiality. Famously, the guns of Montague and Capulet ‘gang members’ are engraved with titles like “sword” to correspond to Shakespearean dialogue. The net effect is overwhelming: disorienting, exciting, unique... and more than a little kitsch.

"The net effect is overwhelming: disorienting, exciting, unique... and more than a little kitsch."

This excess is tempered as the narrative progresses; the subsequent introduction to DiCaprio’s Romeo – “a mixture of James Dean and Kurt Cobain” – is restrained in comparison, as we observe this young man strolling the shore at sunset. This scene self-consciously strives for poetry, in much the same way Romeo recites naïve love poems. The artificiality remains but the depth of feeling is real – and so it is throughout. Just as a play’s audience must accept the inherent inauthenticity of the stage, Luhrmann exaggerates the unreality of the cinematic medium without sacrificing the underlying emotion. That duality – between contrivance and truth – is integral to his adaptation, as seen in two recurring motifs: religion and water.


Religious Iconography

Romeo + Juliet is crowded with religious icons. The aforementioned opening scene strings together a series of crash zooms on a statue of Christ, a nun wanders past the Montague boys, and once the gunplay begins we’re treated to religious symbols emblazoned on weapons and clothing alike - with Tybalt (John Leguizamo), opening his jacket to reveal a scarlet vest decorated with Christ’s image (below). The Montague’s town car is festooned with rosary beads and a crucifix. Even the title itself gets in on the action, trading the traditional ‘and’ or ampersand for a plus sign that looks an awful lot like a crucifix.

Such overt iconography goes hand-in-hand with Luhrmann’s anti-realism; but unlike, say, the costumes worn at the party where the star-cross’d lovers meet, their meaning is not immediately clear. Romeo and Juliet’s knight and angel outfits (more religious symbolism) suggest their roles as archetypal lovers, while the dress worn by Mercutio (Harold Perriineau) hints at the nature of his feelings for Romeo.

But what of the religious imagery? Religion is hardly absent from Shakespeare’s play: Friar Lawrence (retitled Father in Luhrmann’s adaptation) is a man of God whose actions, though benevolent in intent, prove disastrously misguided, while the dialogue draws an explicit link between love and religion – as in the pair’s first flirtation, where they dance around the notion of kissing with references to prayers, saints and pilgrims. Perhaps the ubiquity of these symbols is in fact the point. Garish, overused and coupled with weaponry, this is a world where religion is universally espoused yet stripped of meaning. These icons represents the dogma and hypocrisy of a repressive society.

Romeo and Juliet, then, present an opportunity to enact the Christian principles their parents advocate: love, forgiveness, devotion. No surprise then, that Lawrence (Pete Postlethwaite) seizes upon their bond as opportunity for mending “their parents’ strife.” But just as Luhrmann’s film never truly sheds its artificial accoutrements, the promise proves unfounded. Society’s failure is realised in one final religious icon: the statue of the Virgin Mary that conceals the poison that claims Romeo’s life. Lawrence’s faith in these two lovers’ ability to mend the rift between their parents is ultimately realised, but not without suffering. Not until their deaths.


Water and Pure Love

Another recurring motif – less prominent, but no less important – is Luhrmann’s use of water throughout the film. Romeo is, as mentioned, first seen by the sea. Juliet is introduced immersed in water. The pair make their connection through water, too, catching each other’s attention through an iridescent fishbowl. Most of the dialogue in the famous balcony scene occurs not with the lovers separated by a balcony, but immersed in the waters of the Capulet swimming pool. Water, then, seems to be another one of the many metaphors for love; transparent and pure and beautiful.

Yet ultimately water’s symbolism is an inversion of how the film leverages religious symbols. The intensity of the titular couple’s bond transcends the kitsch overuse of those icons – if only briefly – and, conversely, the purity of their love is soon tarnished, the clean water rendered murky. This is apparent when Romeo murders Tybalt, who falls into a previously unseen artificial pond. As Romeo absorbs the magnitude of his actions, a storm rolls in (an actual hurricane, in fact, one that demolished the beach set). The sky opens up – water marking tragedy, love begetting violence.


What to Watch Next

As mentioned, Romeo and Juliet demands adaptations – and that demand has been well and truly met by filmmakers. Preceding Luhrmann’s interpretation was George Cukor’s 1936 production; generally well-regarded, but old-fashioned to the point of casting a pair of thirty-somethings (Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) in the title roles – roles intended for teenagers.

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film was the first to cast age-appropriate actors in the roles, but regardless of accurate casting it remains a canonical cinematic depiction of Shakespeare’s play. It’s faithful – to the point of including an intermission in a 138 minute film – while still omitting a large fraction of the original play. Leonard Whiting and particularly Olivia Hussey are excellent in the lead roles, but the film belongs to John McEnery, who plays Mercutio with a charismatic flair and intensity that outshines all competitors. His fateful dual with Tybalt (Michael York) is funny, thrilling and heart-breaking all at once.

English teachers looking to introduce the play to their students might shy away from Zeffirelli’s film - because of its age, dusty cinematography and brief nudity – so perhaps Carlo Carlei’s 2013 adaptation was intended to provide a more up-to-date classical version of the story. It’s hard to think of another reason for this disastrous film to exist. It includes only snippets of the Bard’s original dialogue, replacing large chunks of text with inept, generic period drama waffle. The cast looks impressive on paper, but even these talented thespians produce dismal work; only Paul Giamatti acquits himself respectably as Friar Lawrence. Worth watching as an example of how not to adapt Shakespeare.

The Bard’s original play has inspired countless pretenders; too many to provide an exhaustive list. The most well-known is certainly West Side Story (1961), but there’s also a zombie version in Warm Bodies (2013), a werewolf/vampire version in Underworld (2003), a gnome version in Gnomeo and Juliet (2011) and even a kung fu version in Romeo Must Die (2000). Those interested in Shakespeare himself have scant offerings when it comes to biopics, surprisingly; neither Shakespeare in Love (1998), nor Anonymous (2011) are particularly faithful to the facts, while Horrible Histories’ Bill, a comedic take on the Bard due later in 2015, looks to continue the irreverent cinematic treatment of the man.

Romeo + Juliet forms the centrepiece of Baz Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy”, bracketed by Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge respectively. Each weaves a simple story about love around garish emotions and flamboyant visuals. Two decades and four features later, Strictly Ballroom remains Luhrmann’s greatest film – the perfect blend of arch sarcasm, silly humour and gorgeous colour.

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