Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”, is a decidedly bold experiment in adapting Shakespeare to film. Throughout the entirety of the film, there is a constantly whirling suspension of conflict between the preservation of tradition and precedence, and the fearless integration of new concepts. In considering the grand scale of what this film has set out to accomplish, alongside the strides made by its Shakespearean film counterparts, it seems safer to not approach this film by the critique of whether it is a good or a bad film. Instead, it is prudent to examine some of the primary elements of the film, and determine what decisions did or did not pay off.
Unfortunately for Luhrmann, there is a significant difficulty with the preservation of traditional Shakespearean text. While this would appear counterintuitive to the notion of even creating a Shakespearean film, Luhrmann’s grand vision interprets the film as a loose reimagining of the play, instead of a contemporary adaptation. As Janet Maslin, of the New York Times, notes, “The biggest inconsistency…involves the language of the play, which is treated as sacrosanct when everything else about the film reflects radical revisionism”. Almost every facet of the film screams modernism; from brightly eclectic costumes, to the use of Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” in an eccentric film score. No aspect of previous Shakespearean performances is preserved in the film to support or authenticate the use of iambic lines. This lack of support opens up the film’s use of Shakespearean text to the criticism of being pretentious, unintelligible, and overshadowed. Indeed, this proves to be the case several times in the film, with one such example being the scene where Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) kills Tybalt (John Leguizamo). A blaring contemporary pop song accompanies dizzying shots of headlights flashing in a significantly dramatized car crash, with our eyes unerringly being drawn to glaring tattoos on Tybalt’s chest. It is so overwhelming that the verse “Mercutio’s soul/ Is but a little way above our heads, Staying for thine to keep him company: Either thou, or I, or both, must go with him” is barely intelligible. This difficulty of presenting the audience with an overdose of complexity is prevalent during other parts of the film, as well.
Another issue with Luhrmann’s film lies in the casting. A production’s choice of actors is crucial in solidifying the success of performing any version of a Shakespearean play. During the film, it becomes apparent that Miriam Margolyes (Nurse) and Pete Postlethwaite (Father Laurence), are the only actors who are capable of properly communicating the required faithful recitation within Luhrmann’s vision. During Luhrmann’s reinterpretation of the balcony scene, the only sounds that can be heard are the splashing of the water alongside soft orchestral accompaniment. Dressed in simple attire, with a relatively toned-down setting, the audience’s attention is purely fixated on the actors’ speech and movement. Juliet’s lines of “Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be/Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’ Sweet, good night! This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath, May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet” is presented in a rapid muttering, which continues in an unceasingly inflectionless puttering over several lines of verse. As this scene is the only scene in the film without a loud musical accompaniment, it is the best example of the actors’ inability to handle proper execution of the text.
The most controversial element of “Romeo + Juliet”, Luhrmann’s signature vision, is also the most praise-worthy. The use of powerful spiritual and secular authoritarian staging, visual references to various Shakespearean phenomenon, and eternally-shifting editing of shots brings to life a living embodiment of the star-crossed lovers’ tempestuous relationship. There is an unceasing rhythm of shock and awe, which acts as a driving force throughout the entire story. The subtle nuances found in the story’s play-based incarnation are missed, but the audience is consumed by high-tension roiling emotion that permeates the couple’s entire romance. This is particularly noticeable in the film’s opening montage and fight scene, with helicopter shots, crane shots, slam zooms, and extreme close ups.
Bazz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” is, for all intents and purposes, an individual piece of art. It is a completely polarizing individualistic project, with a seemingly grand singular-minded intention of immersion. The vision has eclipsed the execution, but there is enough brilliancy retained in the production to still appreciate the work.