A Film Review of Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. That is no new news, and yet the statement gains a fresh connotation when it is made in light of (or indeed, when it is making light of) the 1996 Hollywood retelling: Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Taken out of its original Renaissance setting, modernization has not been kind to fair Verona. The once bustling Italian city-state now becomes a southwestern coastal American metropolis where dreamboats and freak-shows intermingle in a bizarre symbiosis (not unlike the general Hollywood area). Unfortunately, the newfound cultural setting does nothing to enhance, or even justify the use of Shakespeare’s anachronistic poetry, and any merit that may be gleaned from the modern revision is quickly diminished by the confused and uninspired performances of the title characters. This review briefly examines the first half hour of “the two hours traffic of [the] stage” (1.0.12). Personally, I would rather be stuck in traffic for two hours than endure this film.

Gregory eagerly welcomes you! Get used to men of his ilk...

Unless, of course, I’m stuck in traffic with Gregory and the men of his ilk…

On a broad scope, Lurhmann has made some distinct and deviating interpretive choices from his source material. For the setting, the “two distinguished houses” of Capulet and Montague are now represented as powerful mega-corporations that dominate the city of Verona. There is an interesting element of racism now squeezed into the drama; the Montagues are predominantly Caucasian while the Capulets seem to have a mixed Hispanic background (as evidenced by Lord Capulet’s accent, along with Tybalt and his posse).

John Woo is not impressed.

Enter Tybalt.  John Woo is not impressed.

With respect to the text, ironically, it seems as though there is indeed little respect to the text. Substantial portions of the lines are cut (as may be expected for a film adaptation), but there are numerous other liberalities taken that are more jarring. Lines may be switched from one character to another (Capulet’s line “Give me my longsword, ho” [1.1.61] is given instead to Montague, the Servant with the party invite from 1.2 is now delivered via a TV news broadcast), settings may be altogether changed (Prince’s chastisement of Capulet and Montague occurs in a private police office, away from the battleground), and extra-textual lines may be added in (Abra[ham] quotes from Macbeth in the opening scene with “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble”, Rosaline’s name is specifically introduced by a TV news broadcast and boy who writes her name in chalk at the pool hall).

We must also regard Lurhmann’s camerawork. We see every sweaty, freckled, eye-twitching detail of actors’ faces through the use of plenty of close-up shots. Actions are exaggerated with sudden and sporadic transitions between regular and fast-motion sequences. Like the frantic characters onscreen, the camera jerks back and forth wildly on tracking shots, cuts are rapid enough to induce seizures and a yellow gradient basks every moment with a vibrant, unnatural brightness that distorts the grim reality of the feudal conflict.

The costuming choices seem equally invested in draping the film in the surreal. The Montague Boys (as they are referred to) set the stage with busy-patterned, unbuttoned beach shirts, while the Capulets follow with snakeskin boots and leather jackets. Tattoos and shaved heads bear crosses and corporate logos. Mercutio arrives in drag at the Capulet party. The world Lurhmann has fashioned is one of shock value, iconography and overkill.

As for the score, it is soundly cliché. Bullets zip and ping as though Yosemite Sam were firing them, the camera cuts and heads turn with a comedic “whoosh” effect. The music ranges from gaudy and self-referential (the Montague Boys delivering their lines by rapping along to the music in their car in Act 1.1), to goofy (a Mexican-style shootout theme, also 1.1), to flamboyant and exaggerated (Mercutio’s entrance and subsequent dance routine 1.4 and 1.5).

It is the prerogative of the film director to shape his movie according to his own artistic tastes, however, in many ways this attempt seems to use its Shakespearean source material as nothing more than a thin veneer for what is otherwise intended as a sexy, summer romance flick for teenage girls. I use the words “attempt” and “intended” deliberately as they indicate an effort or endeavor but not necessarily a success.

Hey Baz! Let's do ALL the crack!

Hey Baz! Let’s do ALL the crack!

The first few moments of the movie appear promising – a television news broadcast serves as the Chorus, delivering the prologue in a modern, yet unobtrusive style. Unfortunately, the boon of revision ends there as the prologue is then unnecessarily repeated, with a flurry of quick camera cuts giving lightning-fast glimpses at the setting of this new Verona, along with dramatic flashes of things yet to come further in the script. The entire prologue essentially serves then, as a commercial for a movie the viewer is already watching – a pointless and irritating redundancy (unless the point is to irritate, in which case, well done).

The title splash screen flashes and cuts away to the representation of Act 1.1. What was originally a clever, pun-filled repartee between Sampson and Gregory is now discarded in place of a frenetic shouting match with the servants of Capulet. Shakespeare’s quiet asides between the “Montague Boys” along with the feigned and fatuous honorifics passed in the dialogue with Abraham, once served to build a growing tension between the two warring factions. Now, the tension is permanently set at maximum as though the entire cast is high on methamphetamines, screaming at friend and foe alike, delivering some of the most confused lines ever inflected in the history of English drama. Adding to the disaster are bizarre, extra-textual attempts at physical comedy (Sampson being repeated hit on the head by a lady’s purse, or his shooting the gas station sign), along with a grievously outlandish gun battle that aims for “cool” and hits upon “cringe-worthy”. This scene also causes one to wonder why the two most powerful business magistrates in the city have characters as bizarre as these Sampson, Gregory, Benvolio, Abraham and Tybalt as hired help (though perhaps we may excuse Tybalt’s narcissism under the pretense of his privileged nepotism).

Benvolio, the "Voice of Reason." Heaven help us all...

Benvolio, the “Voice of Reason.” Heaven help us all…

Now, enter Leonardo DiCaprio, assuming the role of Romeo – though more accurately, serving as the eye-candy for all female viewers in the audience; because a sexy lead can compel an audience to stay for a full duration of a film that lacks any other redeeming qualities. His opening reveal casts him as a silhouetted figure on a beach, dressed in a casual black suit that, rather than signifying his melancholy, serves more to set him apart as an attractive figure by comparison to the gaudy fashions of all the other characters. We see his face, flawless and perfectly obscured by a golden sunset from behind.

The real reason girls came to the theater.

The real reason all the girls came to the theater.

Sadly, those baby blues and wavy golden locks are the only charming things about this Romeo. The moment DiCaprio delivers his first line of dialogue it will likely make the objective viewer cry “Aye me,” as well, and cause them to wish instead for more cocaine-induced antics with the strung-out Sampson and Gregory. In his discourse with Benvolio, covering material from Act 1.2, it causes on to question if DiCaprio can even act, let alone do adequate justice to Shakespeare’s language. Emphases on important words are skimmed over, unimportant words are stressed, and iambic rhythm is altogether forgotten. The rushed pace of verbiage along with DiCaprio’s wry smile and aloof behavior all betray the melancholy that is meant to loom over him. Indeed, Shakespeare’s intended Romeo was already a trying character to like but DiCaprio’s delivery borders on insufferable.

Sure, he's dashing... Until he starts to speak.

Sure, he’s dashing… Until he starts to speak.

This unconvincing display from DiCaprio’s Romeo is matched equally by the bored and homely Juliet of Claire Danes. In the scene immediately following Romeo’s debut we are introduced (as per Act 1.3) to Juliet, alas, not before enduring her shrieking, frenetic mother calling her name (again, an extra-textual decision). By comparison to the way the camera casts Romeo as rival to Adonis, Juliet is presented as rather plain or average. Her stark white gown, in contrast to the sharp black suit of Romeo, may have a symbolic reference, though functionally, it frames Juliet in a sort of blemished purity. Her freckles and moles are shot in close-up for all to see, her hair unkempt. I’m sure the underlying message here is that “she’s beautiful on the inside,” but there is nothing on screen that visually suggests that her beauty might “teach the torches to burn bright” (1.5.42), especially when her dialogue is delivered with the same unconvincing ennui as her Romeo.

It's okay, Juliet. I'd want to drown myself too.

It’s okay, Juliet. I feel like drowning myself too.

Lurhmann has attempted in this film to combine rich, historic poetry and a well-known, sordid love story with a modernized twist. Sadly, he has, I submit, failed on every count. There is nothing wrong with a uniquely outlandish setting, but here it is too unbelievable. His directorial vision has derailed the spirit of the original script and his casting choices leave much to be desired. In a sea of buffoonery and poor acting, the title characters take center stage – a demigod “man of wax” falls madly in love with an “average Jane” and together they deliver such underwhelming lines that Shakespeare himself is liable to turn in his grave. All these elements combine to create a whole that could arguably be rationalized as nothing more than a film designed to realize the pubescent sexual fantasies of teenage girls whilst attempting to add enough machismo to fool a few sorry males into the theater.

N'Sync covers the Village People! ...Or is it the other way around?

N’Sync covers the Village People! …Or is it the other way around?

Oh, wait, they're pulling an "Abbey Road".

Wait, I was wrong.  It’s the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”.  Is that Pete Best??

 

Film watched at http://niter.co/all/movies/1263521-romeo-juliet on June 5, 2016.

 

Text referenced from “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. Ed. Daniel Fischlin, Oxford University Press, 2013.

 

Images sourced from Google Images, s.v. “Lurhmann Romeo and Juliet”.

 

Q: What's the difference between Sampson and Blue Stahli?

Q: What’s the difference between Sampson and Blue Stahli?

A: One of them knows how to manically scream with a sense of rhythm.

A: One of them knows how to maniacally scream with a sense of rhythm.

One thought on “A Film Review of Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)

  1. Rocksteadymx says:

    The Capulets and Montagues in the 1996 Romeo and Juliet film were inspired by West Side Story, that’s why the Capulets are mixed Hispanic while the Montagues are Caucasian, they were based on the gang fights between the Sharks and Jets from West Side Story.

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