Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) was a film made for an audience, specifically teenagers and young adults. Although the film did not stray too far from the original text by Shakespeare, it took creative liberty to a new level. It clearly was a film for the times. From exploding gas stations to helicopters hunting down Romeo in Benvolio’s car, Shakespeare could have never even imagined that his play could look like this.
Although there is much to be criticized, it is without a doubt that this take on a classic play was thought out to the very detail. Take for example, the “Wherefore L’amour” sign; a truly modern-day Shakespeare film could not be complete without some version of a classic icon of Coca-Cola. This simple detail breeds familiarity in which the target audience can relate to the setting that much more than they would with a Shakespearian era-style set. Details such as modern-icons take away some of the fear many people feel when reading or watching Shakespeare. The use of Radiohead’s song “There There” overlaying the scenes with Romeo reflecting in his journal is another great example of a modern detail that Luhrmann added to further cater to the younger generation. When Romeo sees his cousin on the small television at the amusement park, it is much easier for the audience to understand what is being said, despite the difficult language. Paris is first introduced to us by the mother with his face plastered on the front of a “Time” magazine; a modern cultural cue telling us that Paris is of high economic and social status, providing a cause for why Juliet’s parents would want her to marry him.
Aside from the many details used to breed familiarity for the target audience, it is clear that Luhrmann made this film to be entertaining. The ‘Montague Boys’, especially Samson, is hammed up to a new level; his crazy laugh, his thumb-biting and getting his head hit by the lady all bring a comedic mood to the beginning of the film. Tybalt’s soul patch is one point against him in my mind; I think that that was the emotion Luhrmann was trying to illicit. It makes the viewer almost glad in a way when Romeo kills him.
Although not in a lead role, Mercutio is a star. Having him dress as a woman and dance for the Capulet’s party made it clear that he is a well-like party animal. His sense of humor causes the audience to appreciate him, making his death later in the film evoke a higher level of emotion from the viewer. I think that when Mercutio gives Romeo drugs (ecstasy?), that crossed a line. Although Luhrmann is in his creative rights to add that in, I found it merely acting as a filler, rather than contributing anything important to the film. As far as acting goes, I found it to be superb. Even Juliet was enthusiastic. Additionally, having a multicultural cast widened the size of the audience and further added to the modern twist on the movie. Today, all races are considered equal, and it should be no less so in a modernized film of classic play.
While still being modern, the film is saturated with Catholic/Anglican symbolism, including statues of mary, crucifix neclaces and religious icons on handguns. Having a society that is so intertwined with a certain religion is not so apparent in the Western world today in the way it was when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. It seems that this is Luhrmann’s way of not completely abandoning Shakespeare’s setting, while at the same time making it clear that this story could only happen in a place in which marriage was of utmost importance. In other words, if two teenagers today were in love and their parents didn’t like each other, the couple would just sneak around. In a modern Western setting, Juliet would never have been expected to marry a husband her parents chose. Hence, the religious symbolism helps the audience to understand that although this story is being told in the modern day, it cannot be realistic without the influence of an entirely different society.
This is the only Shakespeare film I have watched once and have wanted to watch again. It is face-paced, modern and full of lively acting. Luhrmann does a fantastic job of integrating the minute details of today’s society, with those required by the Elizabethan area to present to us a unique film that Shakespeare himself would have thoroughly enjoyed.