William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1996) dir. Baz Luhrmann
IMDb link RT-link
Year: 1996/1997 Director: Baz Luhrmann Cast: Claire Danes, Leonardo DiCaprio, Miriam Margolyes, Pete Postlethwaite, Harold Perrineau, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy Length: 120 min. Color/Stereo
I watched Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge
because I liked this film so much. No comparison. This one is actually good.
Unconventional? Of course. Even a travesty at times. But always respectful, I think, of the source material. I see a difference between “respect” and “reverence.” Respect is shown by keeping the lines as they were written, though not always in the same order. Lack of reverence is shown by attending to comedic moments with levity, and even adding comedy to some moments that were, perhaps, not conceived as funny in the beginning. For example, Luhrmann has characters react to other character’s recitation of the thicker examples of Shakespearean verse with a comic take, at times. One example is Juliet’s speech where she tells her mother, “I'll look to like, if looking liking move:/But no more deep will I endart mine eye/Than your consent gives strength to make it fly,” to which Lady Capulet shakes her head in bewilderment. Much like many members of the audience, no doubt!
My dream casting of Romeo and Juliet would be Leonard Whiting and Claire Danes. That could never happen in real life, of course, due to age differences. But how about digitally? Now, having watched both versions of the play on the same day this time, I don’t see Claire Danes’s Juliet as that much more fitting or likeable than Olivia Hussey’s. Watching the two films with quite a bit of time between them as I always did before, it seemed to me that Danes does a more approachable and more “realistic” Juliet. She isn’t quite as “pretty” as Hussey. But she’s more of a genuine girl. She seems a bit more of an airhead than Hussey does in the role. And this is a teenage girl in love—truthfully, a 13-year old in love. Her thoughts are not fully in order as she approaches Romeo and her passion for him. Attributing more wisdom to her than a girl her age would have, makes things seem wackier than they already do. For that reason the slight ambience of “airheadedness” is appropriate, I think.
I have a little conceptual trouble with the “rumble” aspect of the story. Still, if you allow West Side Story
as a previous version of Romeo and Juliet
, then you even have precedent for the Latin gang-war approach to the play! And the rivalry of families functioning as if they are gangs is present in the original play. So it is not a stretch—it just rattles me a bit. I am also slightly squeamish about the inclusion of party drugs in the story, but it’s being updated to modern times when many people take drugs for parties, or to help them have sex. Or to control their tendency to be distracted by things around them in a world designed to be full of such distractions. So, I suppose it’s appropriate to include it although I cannot personally participate in the behavior. I don’t set gas stations on fire, either, but I watch raptly when someone does it in a film.
Luhrmann does make one substantial change to the play itself. Whereas the original Friar Lawrence lines say that Juliet will mimic death for “two and forty hours,” Luhrmann changes this to “four and twenty hours.” But, the update injects the tale into the speedier modern world, where four and twenty hours is a long time. Especially with companies such as Poste-Haste-Dispatch at our command.
A note about the release date: IMDb says the film was released in 1996. Rotten Tomatoes says 1997. The DVD box
I own says 1997. But a RottenTomatoes poster corrected me in the 2008 RT posting of this thread, and I changed the date in the banner before I researched the release dates. It doesn’t really matter, anyway. Some of the more prolific posters on film-lover's boards were barely out of diapers in 1996 or 1997. And if you don’t remember a thing clearly it’s Ancient History. That’s how the human brain works. So, the date of release doesn’t really matter, I say.
Following are some points I like and some points I don’t like about this film:
The placement of the play into a modern millieu. When I first heard that Lurhmann was doing this I figured he’d change the words, too. And he did, but ”legally” by scooting certain lines around. For example, Romeo says at the party, ”The drugs are quick,” which is a line from the death scene. But Shakespeare wrote it, and it is from Romeo and Juliet
. I figure that’s not any worse than cutting lines.
The way Lurhmann doesn’t take the play totally seriously. For example, there are ”Looney Tunes” moments in the movie. An example is when Benvolio is telling Mercutio that ”The Capels are afoot” and at that time the blue Capulet car is seen moving behind him on the beach, with some dopey sound effect playing. I think that’s pretty cool. I understand if some wouldn’t like it.
That Luhrmann keeps a couple of the ”more difficult” scenes and speeches in place. Scenes that Zeffirelli left out. Examples are the short speech by Juliet about seeing Romeo as if in his grave as he leaves following their night together at the Capulet house. And the scene at the apothecary’s business when Romeo buys the drugs that will allow him to join his wife in death.
The way Luhrmann sometimes lets go entirely of his five cuts in 10 seconds editing style and hangs on a shot for a long time. A good example is the shot following Mercutio’s death scene. Luhrmann hangs on the wide shot as Romeo, then Benvolio run down the beach to Romeo’s silver convertible. The shot stays that way until Romeo drives away.
Luhrmann’s staging of the scene in Act V in the Capulet Tomb. I will have a Comparison feature about that over in the Essays posts, so I won’t write a lot here. But when I first read the play in 10th grade I imagined it played out pretty much the way old Baz Luhrmann put it on the screen. To my teenage mind it seemed sweetly ironic.
Poste-Haste-Dispatch. It’s an addition. The original lines say, ” In this resolve: I'll send a friar with speed/To Mantua, with my letters to thy lord.” Nothing is mentioned about dispatching a letter Post Haste in the play. For this reason I don’t understand why Luhrmann didn’t come up with weapon names that would scan in iambic pentameter and substitute them for ”dagger” and ”longsword.” Ho. Like, ”What noise is this? Give me my long sword, ho!” could have become, ”What noise is this? Give me my rifle, ho!” Guess he didn’t want to.
The substitution of a swimming pool scene for the balcony scene. The young couple look quite adorable all wet as they say those most famous of lines. And this is a part of something else that I admire about Luhrmann’s staging...The emulation of many silent-film standards in the making of this Romeo and Juliet tale. As each major character appears there is a freeze-frame with a title bearing the character name and role in the story. And there is slapstick business injected into the play, but always in a most fitting way. Romeo is especially clumsy (teenage boys often are, especially when they are in lust—or in an enemy’s security-guarded garden). So he causes both him and Juliet to fall into the Capulet’s swimming pool. He trips and knocks over a candle stand after convincing Friar Lawrence to marry them.
The immersive presence of The Church (presumably the Catholic Church) in the sets for the movie. Well it’s immersive for the Capulets, the Latin family. The Montagues have a cross in the back of their limo, but they aren’t seen at home as much, so we don’t know whether Romeo has an altar in his bedroom the way Juliet does in hers. But he is in constant contact with Friar Lawrence, his tutor and confessor, so we might deduce that the presence of The Church in their lives is just as strong. Not that it reduces the level of violence in ther lives. A sad parallel with many modern ”religious” families.
The way I feel the day after I watch this movie. My head is full of pleasant memories and the strains of the music. It affects me, clearly, and for longer than my butt is parked in whatever chair I sit in while I watch it. I wonder what effect it would have on me if I were ever able to see it in the theater.
The substitution of firearms for swords. This has ramifications beyond the strangeness of referring to guns with names of blade-weapons. Still, in a modern city people don’t conduct gang wars with swords. That’s a thing long gone. And if Luhrmann had set his play in the time of old Verona, he’d have been competing directly with Zeffirelli’s great version, plus what would be the point? He made an M-TV Romeo and Juliet
on purpose. This is his vision of the story. The guns are necessary to the updated setting.
In a sense, the setting brings the same logic to bear as whatever logic might be used to imagine-up a setting for a music video. It’s almost as if Luhrmann has created a 120-minute music video version of Romeo and Juliet
. Well, not almost like it. That’s what he did! But, the reference to “Dagger” and “Longsword” as gun manufacturers just seems clumsy to me. And it only appears three times in the movie! Why can’t I just ignore it?
Oh, yeah. Romeo “shoots his way into” the Capulet tomb while under attack from SWAT snipers and a helicopter based gunner. *Rolls eyes*
Oh, yeah. Romeo blasts away at Tybalt, rather than accidentally impaling the boy on a sword as Tybalt falls forward (see the 1968 film). In the 1968 play the aggressiveness is not put-on, but both Mercutio’s deadly wound and Tybalt’s are accidentally received. That changes the irony and tragedy of the story a great deal. In this 1996 retelling, Romeo is able to hold onto deadly feelings of revenge for several hours, and then blow a number of holes into his adversary.
At times the emotional level of the delivery is a bit too high. Not that Shakespeare is above being screamed at the top of one’s lungs. Why not? The plays are not gospel, they are merely very well-written and lasting. But certain over-the-top moments annoy me. Such as Mercutio’s ending lines, ”This is she...this is she...!” for his Queen Mab speech. And Tybalt is too flat a character in this version. Zeffirelli at least gives the Prince of Cats a sense of humor, and playfulness. I know Leguizamo can do that. I’ve seen him. So it had to have been a directorial decision to make Tybalt one-dimensional, here.
The way I can sometimes tell that Leo DiCaprio wasn’t totally
up to delivering Shakespearean verse. At times he seems to lose the sense of what he’s trying to say. But, by and large, he does well with it. Not as well as Ethan Hawke does in the Hamlet
of 2000, but far better than adequate.
Luhrmann cut all the Nurse’s lines in the scene where Lady Capulet tells Juliet that she is going to meet her future husband (Paris) at the party that evening. Then again, in a modern context most of the nurse’s lines would not make sense. I can still see a great performance of those lines in the 1968 film. What’s my complaint?
The way Luhrmann takes the playfulness out of the rumble between Mercutio and Tybalt. Perhaps it is not ”there” in the original lines, but Zeffirelli’s rendering of that scene is seared into my mind as the ”right way” to play it. And I’ve seen other directors use that approach (guided no doubt by the fact that Mercutio’s wound is a total accident). But Lurhmann’s Tybalt is simply mean-spirited from the first shot, and he takes out poor Mercutio on purpose. They are not goofing around, but become involved in a deadly fight that is intended to end in death. The quarrel between Romeo and Tybalt is supposed to be to the death; but in the play, Mercutio becomes worm’s meat because a bunch of boys are playing around with their swords. Romeo’s pivotal line, ”I am Fortune’s fool!” makes less sense in the Luhrmann version just because of the vengeful playing out of the Tybalt-Mercutio duel, followed by Romeo driving around Verona Beach for hours planning to kill Tybalt.
All the closeups. Especially after seeing Zeffirelli’s looser framing on the same day, the constant practice of shoving the camera right up into the actor’s nostrils grated on my sensibilities. Keep in mind, I liked that aspect of the movie before today. And I might like it the next time I see it. I was trying to get appropriate still frames for this thread, and the constant cutting between close-ups was thwarting my attempts. So call this an aspect that I Don’t Like At the Moment
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