William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)
directed by Baz Luhrmann

In the stunningly inventive world of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, rapiers are a brand of automatic pistol, Juliet’s father behaves like the Godfather, Mercutio sports a sequined bikini top and the ‘balcony’ scene moves to a swimming pool.

Many critics argued that this was really Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, burying Shakespeare beneath an avalanche of gaudy tricks, car chases, gunplay and pop songs, all edited at MTV pace. Others recognized that these elements made the play’s love story leap off the screen with unprecedented energy and immediacy, while neglecting its mature characters. Luhrmann defended his approach by noting that the playwright had employed disparate techniques and styles without ever losing narrative control, leaving Shakespearean filmmakers free to be “as outrageous and mad as you like, as long as there’s clarity”; Romeo + Juliet is outrageous and clear, leaving audiences dazed, but not confused.

It turns sixteenth-century Verona into 1990s Verona Beach, a Miami-like city. A TV anchorwoman reads the Prologue and news footage illustrates the feud between property tycoons Ted Montague (a weary-looking Brian Dennehy) and Fulgencio Capulet, played by Paul Sorvino as a volatile Mafia chieftain, married to Diane Venora’s fading Southern belle. The opening brawl becomes a gun battle at a petrol station, as Jesse Bradford’s mumbling Benvolio and John Leguizamo’s sneering Tybalt blast away in a slow-motion cross between John Woo and Sergio Leone, with pastiche Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack. Leonardo DiCaprio’s idle, rich-kid Romeo hangs out at a ruined beachside theater, writing poetry, and shoots pool with Benvolio. Capulet and “Bachelor of the Year” Paris (the blandly likeable Paul Rudd) talk weddings while relaxing in a sauna.

This frantic half-hour of short scenes gives a wonderfully clear sense of the characters’ lives and styles, and every aspect of the production design is geared towards making the language more digestible for teenagers, without actually changing the words.

Claire Danes, just 16 when the film was made, displays that elusive “wiser-than-her-years” quality the part demands, and emerges as the first big-screen Juliet whose speeches sound spontaneous, which is why, among Luhrmann’s heavy textual cuts, his butchering of the heroine’s potion soliloquy is perhaps the unkindest: Forty-five lines of hope, terror, trust and love reduced to “Romeo, I drink to thee.” We also lose most of the relationship with her mother and father, as Luhrmann’s fixation on youth reduces both sets of parents to cameos and Laurence and the Nurse to servants of the plot rather than complex characters in their own right.

Laurence’s letter explaining Juliet’s faked death goes undelivered because Romeo misses the “Post Haste” courier who calls at his Mantua trailer park and he shoots his way into the Capulets’ church as the cops close in (Luhrmann, like Franco Zeffirelli, cuts the killing of Paris, with cowardly Hollywood reluctance to show his hero in a negative light). As Romeo makes his way down an aisle lined with neon crosses, to the altar where Juliet lies surrounded by hundreds of candles, Don McAlpine’s camerawork is at its shimmering best.

The church scene is the culmination of the catholic imagery that has filled Verona Beach (actually Mexico City and Vera Cruz), and designer Catherine Martin also decorates the streets with fleeting nods to Shakespeare (the Shylock Bank, a billboard for Prospero Whiskey), giving us a sense that the story is unfolding in what Luhrmann called “a created world,” where you have to let the director write his own dramatic rules, as in, say, a science-fiction film. If you stop to wonder why the teenagers openly carry guns, or why Captain Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall), the black police chief, does not remand Romeo in custody for Tybalt’s murder instead of banishing him, Luhrmann’s spell is broken.

No other director, before or since, has managed to erase young cinemagoers’ resistance to Shakespeare’s language so effectively, by producing a movie that sounds like original-text Shakespeare but looks and feels like a genre adaptation—and succeeds as both.

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at www.palgrave-usa.com.