By Amanda Faller
Romeo + Juliet (1996) directed by Baz Luhrmann is an enormously polarizing film. Although I can see why some truly do not like it, I hardly agree with them. Romeo + Juliet is a one of a kind film, filled with dazzling visuals and touching, good-bump inflicting moments. Luhrmann’s treatment of the source text is unique and grandiose. Immediately the viewer’s expectations of what a Shakespeare adaptation should be is shattered with the Chorus’s lines beings spoken through a T.V. news broadcast. Instead of being stifled by traditions, Luhrmann uses Hollywood techniques and interesting plot additions and interpretations to catch the viewer’s attention, and keep it.
Often I believe some viewers to take this film too seriously, as one takes Shakespeare seriously. It is hard to believe it was Luhrmann’s true intention to make an intellectual, serious film. Irony soaks this film, and you have to give into it to enjoy it fully.
Part of the charm of this film is what it can do to help build the characters beyond what is capable in a traditional adaption, such as Zeffirelli’s. For instance, Luhrmann decides to introduce Romeo using Radiohead and other rock music to infer he is a ‘bad boy’. In contrast, Juliet is first seen with Mozart playing, showing their differences and highlighting her higher-class and more delicate nature.
It is in Act 1, Scene 3 that we get to see what the filmmakers and actors are truly made of. Harold Perrineau’s depiction of Mercutio is riveting, wild and larger than life. In my opinion he steals the screen and potentially the entire movie from the leading characters. The quick jump cuts and visually rich shots are exemplified when Mercutio’s speech about love winds out of control (probably an effect of the ecstasy they were taking). Interestingly when Romeo is waxing poetic about dreams and fate, and Mercutio of love and women, it all takes place on a decrepit, abandoned stage in the middle of the beach. Perhaps this was Luhrmann’s way of saying out with the old. Romeo + Juliet works because of the surreal modern style of Luhrmann mixed with the surrealism in Shakespeare’s own writing.
Luhrmann decides to move one line from Act 5 Scene 3 to Act 1 Scene 5, where Romeo meets Juliet. Although the whole source text is spliced and cut in this film, it goes to show that Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare it self is not lasting, but the story itself in every iteration. “Thy drugs are quick” is originally in reference to the poison Romero uses to kill himself, however Luhrmann moves it to foreshadow what is to come as well as add new meaning to Romeo and Juliet’s love. Mercutio giving Romeo ecstasy for the party suggests to me that perhaps it’s the drugs guiding Romeo’s passion, and Juliet’s innocence not to know better. After all, she is dressed as an angel, and Romeo is her knight in shining armour.
The music is extremely emotive here, as well as all party-background noise being washed away by their love-trance. Finally when Romeo is separated from Juliet in his friend’s car after his realization she is a Capulet, a shadow casts upon his face, and his mind. Later we see Juliet speaking to herself at the poolside. Here, despite the shot being long and still, the water’s reflection dances across her face as she realizes she loves Romeo despite his name.
Focusing lastly on Act 5 Scene 3, where Romeo finds Juliet’s unconscious body. The screen is filled with blue and orange, complementary colours. As Romeo approaches Juliet the blue fades and he lays beside her. In contrast to other shots, each actor’s face has an extreme close up, their faces hardly fitting entirely into the shot. This helps show how intimate this moment is. Tension builds as we see Juliet waking, her fingers wiggling and eyes fluttering. Despite this not being in the original text, it adds a captivating visual that enhances the scene. Finally Romeo dies and Juliet is awake. As she takes his gun, there is a shot of her with an angle in the background as if it is sitting on her shoulder. To me, this shows that their suicides are not truly sad as they believed what they were doing was right. As well, this entire section is mostly orange-toned. This also shows the warmth and intimacy of this scene. The blue was introduced when Juliet and Romeo were still alive and had a chance when he entered the cathedral, however it was removed when Romeo believed her to be dead, and finally when Romeo died. When Juliet pulls the trigger, there is a long shot including the blue glowing lights once more, suggesting Romeo and Juliet are together again. Although blue is traditionally associated with sadness, we can see in the next scene where the Prince is addressing the crowd, that grey is used for sadness and mourning.
Finally, the film ends as it opens, with a news broadcast and the T.V. flicking off.
Romeo + Juliet is an outstanding film and should be regarded not only for its style but also for what it has done for the Shakespeare film genre and story telling accomplishments.