Despite the various negative reviews that surround Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. Overall, it serves to reinforce Kenneth Goldsmith’s idea that context is the new content.
The prose and verse of Shakespeare, at best annoying and most often unintelligible to the target audience of teenagers, was given new significance when placed in a modern setting, effectively making it relevant to a generation at risk of disregarding it.
The film begins with a conflict between the houses of Capulet and Montague. It is important to note that several of the lines are given over to characters who did not originally possess them and scenes and roles are often switched between the houses (a line originally spoken by a Montague is given to a Capulet). While elitists may argue that this takes away from the character development and deliberation of Shakespeare’s writing, I hold that these subtle and ultimately harmless changes serve to distinguish the film from the play. This only increased the likelihood that audiences would turn to the original text of the play; once an audience has been intrigued by a story, they don’t leave it at the screen. Evidence of this claim can be found in the wildly successful Harry Potter series. In its translation from page to screen several textual details were altered or lost, but this only worked to enforce the idea that the movies and books go hand in hand and that one should not be seen as a replacement for the other. Indeed, the interest generated by the movies only aided in directing audiences to the books. Similarly, had Romeo+ Juliet delivered a completely traditional and by- the- book performance of the play, it would have been a replacement for rather than a counterpart to the original text. It would have thus lost its ability to coyly but effectively guide a new generation to the classics.
That being, established, we must acknowledge that there are several instances of clever symbolism and adaptation. One such instance is the scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet. The fish tank between them at first seems like nothing more than a few panes of glass, insignificant just like the conflict between their families. However, the camera enters the fish tank and reveals it to be a complex world involving many organisms, just as the conflict creates more tension between the two lovers than they would have liked to believe possible.
The cast was very well chosen. The youthful looking Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes helped emphasize the fact that the audience was essentially looking at a story about their peers and thus increased interest. It also made an interesting statement when looked at from an sociological point of view. The idea that the two mostly Caucasian families (the Capulets appear to be a Caucasian-Hispanic mix) are “ruled” by a black “prince” is a subtle means of distinguishing the apparent distribution of power among the characters from the actual distribution of power among the characters. These observations of racial stereotypes continued when the audience was introduced to Nurse, a hackneyed Hispanic mother hen. Combined, these two casting choices allow the audience to reflect upon the society they live in, echoing the entrenchment of the hierarchy in Shakespearean writing.
Luhrmann shadowed Shakespeare in his use of comedy in the film. Both entertainers tried to keep their audiences engaged through jokes and innuendos. While it is easy to place Shakespeare on a pedestal and glorify his raunchy jokes, we must appreciate the physical comedy that Luhrmann incorporated into the film. It served to lighten the mood and make it easier to attach to the characters. Indeed, it communicated to the audience how they should feel about particular characters without being condescending.
Juliet’s room saw another instance of clever interpretation. The statues of the virgin Mary helped romanticize the setting while the collection of china dolls helped the teenage girls that mad up most of the audience identify with the setting. It also served to emphasize how clumsy and young the two characters are when they make love. Essentially, it points to the nonsensical notion that a little girl who still has dolls in her room is being pressured to get married and lives with so much violence entrenched in her life. It also points to the fact that Juliet has, in many ways, been more sheltered than Romeo; he is holding and shooting guns and complaining about sexual frustration while she still admires her dolls. This is reinforced in their costumes; Juliet in her modest, sombre white dresses and natural looking make up is made to look distinctly childlike, particularly when she is dressed like an angel, while Romeo is shown to bare more skin, often leaving his shirt buttons undone. Of course, his skinny and undeveloped physique create a juxtaposition that makes it obvious that he is little more than a child.
Teenage angst is thus perfectly captured and given significance that it does not receive in everyday life. Luhrmann’s unspoken assumption that young audiences would appreciate a playwright who glorifies the emotions that the teenaged audience experiences, emotions often disregarded and minimized, is an instance of irrefutable logic. Lurhmann acts like an inspiring teacher; he strays from content specificities, but manages to make his students, in this case his audience, take an active interest in materials that they would cover anyways. He has rejuvenated a classic ensuring that another generation appreciates the elements and power of literature that transcends time. The audience may not quote Shakespeare over their morning cereal, but they have stepped away with greater respect and understanding for the playwright, making them more likely to appreciate Shakespeare in particular and classic literature in general.
Images sourced from Google Images, s.v. “Romeo + Juliet”.